from the book ‘The Secret Corps’
'Under Eastern Eyes'
by Ferdinand Tuohy, 1920

Espionnage in the Middle-East

British troops entering Baghdad

 

Crossing the Mediterranean, one entered a new realm of espionage, a world, it is true, full of Eastern patience and cunning and subterfuge, but nevertheless a world, one felt, in which the spy no longer emerged bogey-like as in the West.

Espionage that mattered, in the East, was primarily the preserve of a few resourceful officers, Turkish, German, British, who masqueraded behind the lines of their opponents and wandered about collecting information. Next in the list of honour—dishonour?— came the Bedouin, employed as a carrying agent, bearing reports and documents concealed away in the flowing folds of his abbas, and free to roam at will into the desert. As we retained Bedouins freely as agents, and sent them round and even through the Turkish lines at Gaza and Jerusalem, it is only sane to suppose that the enemy did likewise. It should be borne in mind that in Palestine the opposing forces were not locked together in one continuous trench line as in France. In Palestine the trenches ran parallel to one another, running inland from the coast for perhaps fifty miles. After that they tailed off into the desert, both British and Turkish flanks ending "in the air." It was therefore a simple affair for an Arab agent to pass round the desert flank and so gain the rear of the Turkish or British lines as the case might be.

A Bedouin agent would be instructed to proceed round the flank of the Turkish position and to visit Ramleh, where the German flying squadron was located; Jerusalem, then headquarters; Lydd, an important rail junction; and Damascus, the hub and radiating centre of the whole Turko-German effort. At these places he would receive written reports from resident agents—for instance, the Ramleh resident agent would report on the German Flying Corps; the Lydd resident agent, a railway official, on the amount of troops, stores and ammunition that had latterly passed through his junction.

The British in Palestine hardly lacked resident agents behind the Turkish lines. Syrian, Armenian, and Greek merchants, hating Ottoman domination but also actuated by Levantine greed, were not slow in offering their services. Of the heroic breed was a fair- haired young Jew of nineteen named Aaronson, whose father's house at Joppa was long the billet of a senior German staff officer. Young Aaronson systematically passed information over to the British, even down to reporting what the German staff officer said at table. Later, he developed into possibly the most valuable civilian agent we had in Palestine. Spurred on to hatred of the Turk by the long-standing sufferings of his family, Aaronson placed himself at the disposal of the British at the close of 1917 during the operations culminating in the capture of Jerusalem. As time went on he grew in daring, and used to make frequent excursions behind the Turkish lines, returning with information seldom found to be inaccurate. For these excursions he used a small boat in which he would quit the British lines, row out to sea and round the flank of the opposing trenches resting on the coast, and land some twenty miles further north behind the Turkish position.

His first visit on such occasions would always be to his sister at Joppa. The girl, also burning with hatred for the Turk, acted as a "letter-box," collecting reports from satellite agents and handing everything over to her brother, who would then return and report at British G.H.Q. at Lydd. Young Aaronson made several trips backwards and forwards before the Germans became suspicious.

What then transpired must be as terrible an affair as even the late war produced.

The Turks arrested the young Aaronson girl, incarcerated her in a filthy prison, and proceeded to put her through the "third degree."

The girl absolutely refused to say a word that might incriminate her brother or others. Threats, semi-starvation, submitting their prisoner to gross indignities—all availed the Turk nothing. So one day they pulled out one of the girl's finger-nails. The next day another; the next day another. The young girl, suffering terrible pain, still refused absolutely to say a word. At last all her fingernails had gone. Then she was killed. Young Aaronson heard the news on his next journey behind the Turkish lines and came back and reported the tidings to G.H.Q. After that there was no holding him. When the Turkish line crumbled in the last offensive in September, 1918, it was Aaronson who first entered Jaffa, landing there by boat with a machine-gun and several companions, and slaying every Turk he could see, wounded, prisoner, or fleeing.

Aaronson was subsequently incorporated in the British Syrian Government, as a keen Zionist, and may well make his dynamic presence even more felt in the future.

In Palestine we even drew our agents from the Turkish Army.

There would always be a trickling stream of deserters over to our lines and many of those, both officers and men, were willing to transfer their allegiance and serve in the British Army. I made the acquaintance of one such chameleon before Gaza in September, 1917.

One morning at breakfast-time I found the mess tent unoccupied save for a swarthy little man in khaki, with upturned moustache and recalling in general appearance Enver Bey. He rose and bowed as I entered. I noticed he wore a major's crown and not being used to receiving compliments at breakfast from senior officers, I was intrigued. Then he spoke about the weather in broken English and I decided he must be one of Colonel Lawrence's "stunts." He wasn't. He was even a more remarkable freak than that, and he told his tale unblushingly as I sipped my tea. Forty-eight hours before he had been a major in the Turkish army, in command of a battalion holding part of the ruins of Gaza. An Armenian, full of hatred for the Turks, he had decided to desert with one of his subalterns. He now announced it to be his intention to "propogand " the whole of his late regiment into deserting to the British lines. "Meanwhile," he proceeded artlessly, "I join your Intelligence Staff as major. Very happy be British major. Go now question Turkish prisoners from my brigade which you capture last night. Good morning, sir." And he bowed low.

And I rose and paid him the compliment a captain owes a major.

An even more valuable chameleon was a Turkish lieutenant who deserted and who turned out to be the topographical officer of the 18th Army Corps, General Staff. This gentleman was at once put to work in our "Maps" branch and proved invaluable by reason of his knowledge of largely unknown territory lying ahead; it is even said that he was put up for the O.B.E.

But we did not have it all our own way in Palestine espionage.

A young German named Preusser, who had lived in the country for years and had thoroughly absorbed its customs and learned its language, was a most formidable competitor for prime honours in spying. Preusser, outwardly the Bedouin and with his face artificially tanned, is known to have passed repeatedly to the rear of the British lines and even to have got as far as the Suez Canal, riding a donkey. There was indeed a strong suspicion at one time that he had succeeded in reaching Cairo and that, arrived there, he had changed into civilian clothes and stayed at Shepheard's Hotel.

This latter place needs amplification in a narrative such as this. One would place it beside the Savoy Hotel, London; the Hotel du Rhin, Amiens; the White Tower, Salonica; and the Hotel Continental, Rome, as one of the happiest spying grounds, in the eavesdropping sense, which the war produced. The whole white life of Cairo seemed to hinge on Shepheard's. Here at tea-time tout le Caire paraded, French and Italian ladies who still managed to liaison with the Rue de la Paix despite the tonnage shortage; Englishwomen fresh in from golf or tennis at Gezireh; officers of the Ber-saglieri and of St. Cyr; generals and subalterns; Highlanders, Australians, Indians, wealthy Armenians, Greeks, Levantines and Turks, many keeping the fez on as if still lording it at home; grey and red-caped nursing sisters—all sitting round gossiping. If Preusser ever got to Shepheard's it was certainly worth his while.

Satellite spies in a country like Egypt were probably drawn from the ranks of Greeks and Levantines and half-castes—the lowest in nature—and were employed as dragomen and bar-tenders. The peril of the drawing-room spy hardly existed in a country where social convention kept West and East absolutely apart. The artiste was another matter, the sharp-witted Greek and Italian girl thoroughly denationalised by her mode of life. One does not infer that officers on leave spent their time discussing military happenings with these artistes. But a clever girl could entrap her companion in many an innocent way. She could offer to post on to him photographic prints that he had been unable to collect in time, and so obtain his unit and division, and she might then possibly ask where he was actually located. Or else an enthusiastic young airman might launch forth on all the very latest anent his life and doings in the field —and very few people can stop an airman talking aviation.

The so-called "Princess of Alex" was one such artiste who had to be watched.

This lady, although a French divorcee, used to frequent the gay resorts of Ramleh and San Stefano, suburbs of Alexandria, dressed as a native girl of birth and condition. She wore the yashmak and sandals and bangles on her bare ankles and beautiful silken and satin flowing Moslem gowns. Intelligent and thoroughly conversant with English, she served as the ideal decoy for young officers "held by the intoxication of the East." Extremely dark and Spanish looking, she would peer coyly over her veil—showing nothing but two arched black eyebrows-—as she sat at tea in Groupy's, or in a box at the Kursaal, or at the skating rink. Although freely supposed to pass her information on to an equally well-known Cairo character, employed at a famous hotel, the "Princess" never lost her personal liberty.

A resident enemy agent in Egypt had two main alternatives in disposing of his information. He either used a Bedouin as carrying agent, as already outlined, or else he got in touch with a U-boat cruising off the coast.

The value of the U-boat in this respect was vividly enough brought home to the writer one day off Alexandria when a twelve-thousand-ton Harrison liner was put down just ahead. The U-boat had sailed up merrily to her prey, with a sail rigged up on her that gave her the appearance of an Egyptian dhow, and coming in to five hundred yards had scored a "bull" amidships or "down in seven minutes." Even then the innocent sailing vessel had not been suspected by the escort of three torpedo-boat destroyers, dashing furiously here and there, and when the "dhow" ultimately began submerging, sail and all, it was too late for effective action to be taken.

"This camouflage dhow business," explained the first officer of our transport, "is getting a bit of a nuisance. You see the Huns hang about outside looking for all the world like dhows and then, at night, some of our priceless natives row out to them and hand them over the latest spy reports from Cairo. The U-boat commander then submerges and heads for Beyrout or Alexandretta."

The real, if not the titular head of the British Secret Service in Egypt was Colonel Lawrence, a young man of twenty-nine, whose career, for romantic adventure, has probably been unexampled in this or in any other war. Lawrence, before the war, was a boyish, fair-haired young University student in England. Keen on archaeology and Egyptology, his studies took him out to the Holy Land, and there he found himself in 1914, strangely enough not far away from the young German, Preusser, just mentioned, and who had similar tastes and ambitions in life to the young Englishman. Lawrence first served as a lieutenant in the political department but gradually worked his way up by sheer knowledge of the native and despite the concentrated obstruction of elderly experts alarmed at the possibility of their sinecure jobs slipping from them. Lawrence finally became liaison officer with the King of Hedjaz and chief British Secret Service agent. He would don the burnous and abbas, allow his fair hair and beard to grow and grow, and wander away into the desert, now alone, now at the head of a few Bedouin followers. His missions were manifold. Sometimes he would proceed behind the enemy's lines, have a good look round on his own, and then return and report laconically at General Headquarters. At other times again, he would trot off on a camel towards Akaba, out in the wilderness, and there pay off Bedouin agents, collect their reports, and instruct others to proceed on fresh missions behind the Turkish lines. On such treks he invariably lived the life of the complete Bedouin, even down to falling in with their religious ritual and eating their horrible food in their equally revolting Bedouin way. Lawrence stopped at nothing. One of his pet hobbies was railway wrecking. The main Turkish railway from Damascus to Mecca ran down vertically about one hundred miles inland from the British right flank. Lawrence used to amuse himself by blowing the line up now and then. He also blew up ammunition and troop trains, and once captured a Turkish contingent of three officers and eighty men. He used to apologise on such occasions for not bringing in more prisoners, explaining that the fighting ardour of his Bedouin followers had been difficult to hold in check. Another highly useful mission Lawrence would fulfil was that of cutting the enemy's telegraphic communication. This used to be done just prior to important military operations in the field, the effect being that the Turks would be obliged to fall back on wireless.

Colonel Lawrence was given the Companionship of the Bath for his services. He was actually recommended for the Victoria Cross, but was not granted that supreme decoration because there had never been a senior officer witness of his exploits—a lame enough excuse seeing that there was ample proof in a dozen ways that those exploits had well and truly been carried out.

The final phase of his activities took the form of what he called "Turk-baiting." This consisted of keeping the various Arab and Bedouin tribes on the flank of the Turkish armies in continuous revolt and insurrection against the Ottoman forces. Lawrence would go and live with a tribe for a few days, tell the headman what to do to harass the enemy locally, and then pass on to the next encampment of Bedouins and repeat his process of instruction.

Hardly less resourceful a spy out in Palestine was the German, "Major Francks."

Francks had spent, nearly all his life in the British Colonies and would have passed for an Englishman in any society. He took full advantage of the fact by acquiring a collection of British officers' uniforms and masquerading in them as a British officer behind the British lines. His career became legendary. Once, when dressed as an Australian officer, he was challenged by two Australian sentries. He promptly put them under arrest! On another occasion, masquerading as a colonel of the British Ordnance staff, and wearing the blue tabs and square gun-metal badge of that organization, he arrived at our main ammunition base at Rafa, and saying that he had been sent down by the Australian division up in the line, made a full and exhaustive enquiry into the British ammunition supply. Later on, before a battle, he appeared in the British lines dressed as a staff captain with red tabs, visited the headquarters of a brigade of field artillery, announced that he had come from G.H.Q., and proceeded to extract full details of the barrage it was proposed to put down in the forthcoming action. Subsequently, when the distinguished visitor had departed, it was found that wrong information had been given him on one point and the artillery staff rang up G.H.Q. with a correction. Headquarters knew nothing at all of any of their staff officers having been round the battery positions that day, and so the masquerade became known. At great pressure of work the whole barrage had to be altered from that given inadvertently to "Francks."

The latter's final exploit was perhaps the most amazing of all.

While the British were holding the Jaffa-Jerusalem sector he came round, again as a staff officer, and passed from battalion to battalion in the front line posing as an inspecting officer. He questioned each battalion commander minutely on his instructions for the forthcoming British attack, and then returned unsuspected to the Turkish lines.

Naturally, the exploits of "Francks" led to quite a "Francks scare" in Palestine.

Many perfectly innocent officers were detained as suspects and staff work was much hampered in consequence. Yet despite the real danger this man presented and the hundreds of casualties he must have caused the British, a general hope prevailed that so brave a sportsman would never be caught, since if he had been, his masquerade in British uniform would have left us with no option but to have shot him.

In the sandy wastes of Palestine the best protection against espionage was to concentrate the natives in certain fixed areas and not permit them to move out of such areas on any consideration. All roving Arabs were arrested and searched. Even two Italian barbers whom General Allenby insisted on having with him in the field were subject to this "concentration" order and were not permitted to leave the confines of G.H.Q.

And the documentary file that grew up around those barbers. Strange war!

Yet even stranger duties sometimes fell to "Intelligence" in the East.

One afternoon at Khan Unus a deputation of "the Virgins of Khan Unus" waited on the local intelligence officer to protest that they "did not wish or desire to marry men their fathers and mothers had betrothed them to in early childhood or even before birth."

The swarthy belles—there were six of them, all brazenly unveiled and inculcated with new ideas as the result of seeing daily round them Englishwomen, nursing sisters, enjoying the same rights as men—wished to choose for themselves whom should be their life's companion. But alas! for the Vestals of John's Tavern, politics remain politics, and for us to have interfered with local customs would have been to bring down the wrath of Allah on our campaign.

The further one went East, the less there was to fear from espionage.

In Mesopotamia, except as a carrying agent and the world's most adept thief, one could eliminate the native almost completely from possible participation in spying.

For two thousand years and more, while we have had our Jutes and Romans, our bluff King Hal and good Queen Bess, our Nell Gwynne and Charlie Chaplin, these people by the Persian Gulf have marked time. Their morals, manners and converse are the same. They live now, as then, parochially, seeing no further than the neighbouring tribe; illiterate, without ambition, entirely sensual and self-centred, talking only of the produce of the soil and the bargaining of the market, and thinking only of what new deal they'll do or of what new wife they'll buy.

For them the war and the future meant little, save gain. They preferred, in the words of old Omar of these parts, to :

"Leave the wise to wrangle and with me The quarrel of the universe let be; And in some corner of the hubbub coucht, Make game of that which makes as much of thee!"

They may not long remain so harmless, these Mesopotamians. Tens of thousands of them to-day —those drawn in from the desert to the bigger centres since the war—are in a hectic enough state of development. Imagine the steam-engine, the liner, the camera, the cinema, the telephone, the aeroplane, the motor-car, the newspaper, the gramophone, wireless, electric light—slowly grafted on to us in the West through several generations— suddenly sprung upon you in the space of a few years.

And we had strange ways of initiating these Arabs to the Western Idea.

Had we been Germans, of course, parties of professors, Baedeker, butterbrodt and change of linen complete, would have descended upon each centre of habitation, as captured, even as did the Assyrians of old. "Goosestep twice daily down the native Bazaar " would have come the order from headquarters; the imperial moustachios would have been made compulsory for all males between the ages of ten and seventy. Behold, too, the Kaiserin, in yashmak and sandals, opening a sausage kitchen, and the local populace regaled with throat-throbbing films of German soldiers tending Belgian women by the roadside.

We did things differently.

One night, I recall, at the cinema at Basrah, the first film showed an avid Arab audience, a drunken Englishman knocking out his wife.

I mention this because it seems to a young and innocent one who has travelled a little, that the sooner we put some sort of brake upon our pushful cinema and dancing girl experts and exporters, the better chance shall we stand of re-establishing that vital equilibrium as between sahib and native, upon which our Empire largely rests, and which has been sadly unbalanced in the war, partly through the temporary behaviour of interlopers like the writer, sent East without a word of advice, but more especially by reason of that moral frailty which our black and brown troops could not but fail to detect around them, indeed were freely drawn into, when on service in the West.

East of Suez, the white woman must be held aloft, unbesmirched, if her man is to carry on.

This cannot be done if the native be permitted constantly to see her living image on the film the centre of the usual amorous and decollet scene.

Nor can it be done if theatrical managers, out for coin, are permitted to export chorus and dancing girls freely and unthinkingly to the East. Lord Cromer appreciated that fact in Egypt thirty years ago, and it would appear high time that the rigorous law he then enforced should be extended to other parts of the Empire.

Assuredly in this respect, such reputation for laxity as Frenchwomen, as a body, appear to have acquired, is due more to France having systematically failed, in the past, to control the export of her women than to any fundamental moral taint.

French dancing girls and singers and others abound in every port and city where the world foregathers; yet we lose proportion and think things that are not so.

For every one such artiste abroad, there are probably a hundred steady demoiselles at home.

But I have wandered once again. We were discussing Basrah.

I see, recreated before me now as I write in mid-Atlantic, that unique human panorama which spun itself out before my amazed western eyes one day two years ago.

Here comes a lordly Arab, folded arms, white burnous, all black abbas trailing the ground.

Puffing at a cigarette, he passes by. Ten paces away, meekly follows Madame weighed heavily down by a huge basket poised on the head. It contains the day's food—raw meat, vegetables and a weird paste made from some part of a goat. With one arm she drags a huge Tigris salmon along the roadway. (You felt at once that you wanted to kick the husband, but in Mesopotamia that sort of feeling soon passed off, because if you showed any form of chivalry to the local ladies, as by instinct you wished to, the darkest suspicions were at once aroused. And in the end you couldn't help looking on the women more or less as beasts of burden—if not treating them as such.)

A kilted Scotsman and a broad, bronzed able seaman, each weighed down with soda- water bottles, are the next pedestrians, followed close at heel by a brood of Arab boys yelling: "Cigarette, Johnny!" Then two or three flappers trip merrily by, carefully hiding their faces and peering ahead out of the corner of an eye.

Flappers! They've been married, as likely as not, two or three years, and this is the period of their hay-making—while the sun briefly blazes on them, soon for ever to fade away.

A brace of camels next gurgle their way along, bound for Zobeir and the desert, then a bullock tonga and a few donkeys and mules. Follow stately Rajputs, dapper little Ghurkas, jet black-bearded Sikhs, tall Pathans, Jhats, Londoners, interspersed with local coolies of every type and age, blind and sinister-looking old men, irrepressible Arab boys. The crowd scatters before a Ford car or a motor bicycle tearing through at twenty miles an hour—and then reforms. A polyglot throng; imported coolies from India, fair- skinned Kurdish girls (the prettiest in the country), Syrian and Chaldean women stumping along, heavy and middle-aged at thirty, and tugging their brood in a sort of chain; insolent, swaggering Turks and Arabs, natives of the place, with flowing abbas and camel-haired headgear, trim Red Cross Sisters, khaki Arab police, officers of the Indian Cavalry, immaculately "turned out"; scowling Jews (features the selfsame as in Poland); comely, dark-eyed, made-up Jewesses—their faces hidden behind a black flap slanting down from the forehead to the upper lip. (They were always lifting the flap.)

The panorama continues. Lifeless-looking female figures, swathed from head to foot in black; Armenian girls, either unveiled or wearing pretty transparent veils hanging free to the mouth, and pink and Cambridge blue the favourite colours of the sex.

Of the natives, Marsh and Nomad, the Arab boy from ten to sixteen is a long way the finest of his species. But at the latter age, he looses his agility and intelligence, and as often as not goes and sits with his father up against the wall for the rest of his life.

As for mam'zelle, up to twelve, you see her as a shy, dirty and uninteresting little lady, usually carrying water or younger relations. At twelve she marries, and the prettier she may be the longer is her strict seclusion. If, by chance, she should have anticipated, in some form or style, the marriage ceremony, then it is incumbent upon her sorrowing family to relieve her of all further earthly worries—which they proceed to do for the honour of the house. In this way, a strict morality, which no Watch Committee can ever hope to engender in the West, obtains on the banks of the Tigris—though a family of ten or twelve may live pell-mell together in one ramshackle tent or hovel, throwing all shame, as we know it, to the winds.

I well remember my first introduction to the Marshman's hovel.

Our river steamer had gone ashore somewhere south of Kut, and with yells and whoops of joy the inhabitants of the village hard by descended upon us, most of the girls and women carrying baskets of eggs for sale, the men lounging about behind, veritable "beaters in." Dozens of small boys turned Catherine wheels in a state of considerable undress. And all, of one accord, shouted and kept on shouting "Backsheesh!"

One little girl fairly raked in the shekels.

Aged about twelve, exceedingly pretty, she skipped about coyly, showing off her gaudy cotton wrappings, a scarlet sash compelling attention to a perfect little figure. Judging by the attention paid her by the men, she had only come out that season; at all events her roving eye would have done credit to the old Moulin Rouge.

"Ask her," someone said to an interpreter, "what on earth she's going to do with all that money. She must have got at least twenty chips (rupees) by now."

Presently came back the reply: "She says she's collecting a dowry of a hundred rupees (seven pounds). Then she can marry."

If this were true, then the passing of our particular steamer very considerably precipitated the happy day. And strange to think that, until a year or two before, little Zacchia's dowry would have been a hundred goats or sheep!

For fully an hour the bargaining went on.

"Come on! Sahib! One anna! Good! Good! Backsheesh! Backsheesh!"

A white-bearded old man, at least a hundred, with sightless eyes and tall staff, is led to the water's edge by a little child. Both say "Backsheesh!" The old man feebly, the child shrilly. You throw a coin and the little child picks it up and gives it to the blind old man.

Elbowing, pushing, guttural cursing and argument continued by the waterside, the women, especially those about twenty (who correspond to the Western woman at forty), being veritable viragos.

And looking back, as we drew away, we saw the little interbred community, a world unto itself, re-enter its mud walls, the men collecting all the cash. And you wondered ... why? All they had done was to look idle and surly and hang about like souteneurs.

But in at least one tribe, that of Zobeir, the women rule the roost. The women of Zobeir keep harems of several husbands, whom they dress up and paint and pamper—and thrash whenever the spirit moves them. These ladies are strikingly handsome in a coarse, dark, Amazon way, and their muscles, due to the great weights they carry, might be calculated to make even Hindenburg flinch. The writer once saw such a bint (woman) carrying fourteen wicker chairs on her head. They carry everything on their heads—be it a sardine or a couple of sheep. Their balancing of weights, in fact, is a thing to marvel at, and their necks have been grotesquely over-developed as a consequence. It would be well to steer clear of these ladies as they came ambling along at their curious undulating half trot—due to the continuous weight carrying. Barefooted, with the legs of Olympic runners, brazenly unveiled, and wrapped in a black shroud, they cared not for Sheikh or Sahib. They have been known to carry the most prodigous weights on their heads, such as twenty boxes of dates each six pounds in weight, and, on their backs, thirty ten-pound bricks.

"Now, then, Missus Smith!" would declaim a British sergeant-in-charge of a working party, twisting his moustache and flicking the burly delinquent with his swagger cane: "None o' yer bloomin' swank! You carried ten o' those yest$r-day!"

Often in the midday hours, you would see these superwomen suckling their infants by the roadside, after working since 5 a.m.

Without a doubt the presence in the country of several hundred man-equal white women, nursing sisters, had a profound effect on the native women of Mesopotamia. "Sister," incidentally, not only served as a ministering angel; she brought perhaps the only breath of civilisation and home to the desert warrior and became enthroned in consequence and feted on all sides. Her successes were astonishing; flirting with the nursing sisterhood was a phase, like setting out to learn Arabic, which all who served in Mesopotamia succumbed to at one time or another. After which, one proceeded to treat Sister—as a sister.

"One voyage," related the captain of our river steamer apropos a flirtation aboard, "we had a specially pretty Sister aboard, and all the young bloods fresh down from the Hill stations used to fairly swarm round her. The poor girl came to me in sheer desperation ... well ... see that little platform all on its own out yonder? (and he pointed to an empty, railed-in gun platform right up in the bow and joined to the bridge by a private gangway) ... well, I used to put her out there on a deck chair all by herself, for hours on end.

"And when the 'knuts' used to come along with chocolate and fruit and their: 'Captain, may I go out and see Sister?' bet your life I used to tell 'em: 'No you blinking well can't!'"

But lest I have given an impression of the Mesopotamian sisterhood skipping merrily, metaphorically speaking, round the local Tree of Knowledge, perhaps one of their number may be quoted:

"Yes, we stand the climate remarkably well, outwardly, compared with the men. Many of us have done two summers of it without going sick. But ... it changes us a lot. Sisters coming out from home, and who haven't seen us since the beginning, sometimes fail to recognise us. We age five years in one. Which isn't to be wondered at. All last August, at Basrah, we couldn't get an hour's consecutive sleep with the sand-flies. We used to spend the night walking in threes, arm in arm, up and down the date groves. The one in the centre could drowse of! for a few minutes, even when walking. It's funny to think of now! Sometimes you'd see a sister stop and stamp her feet in despair, saying, 'Damn! damn! damn! damn! damn!' ..."

Funny! often since one has thought of those pioneer white women walking arm in arm up and down the date groves trying to sleep ... while Daphne and Betty gloated through the Carnival of War at home.

A vast political Intelligence organisation, "the White Tabs," watched the natives of Mesopotamia during the war. Those living the length of the Tigris, perhaps half a million all told, had in particular to be kept under observation. About half of this number are Nomads, the remainder Sedentary. The Nomads live in tents and are ever on the move, now into the desert, now back to the Tigris. They flourish in little self-contained colonies of a hundred or so, sowing a crop here and there, passing on, returning to reap it, and then passing on once more, no one knows whither, least of all the Nomad himself. All the time, he goes on breeding his livestock—goats, sheep, camels, cattle, poultry—sells them, and passes on. The Nomads are of stern stuff. They love a "scrap"—yet rarely attack unless in greatly superior numbers. They are divided into tribes and sub-tribes, and pay tribute to Sheikhs and lesser Sheikhs. Often a Sheikh may have a following of four or five thousand foot and a thousand horse, the fleetest, finest horsemen in the wide world. Such a guerilla force usually sides with the top dog of the moment; with us if our star were in the ascendant; with the Turk should we have fallen on evil days.

So you will readily understand the necessary ramifications of the Political Intelligence Department in Mesopotamia!

A little stab in the back was always possible; the graver the times the more vigorous the stab.

These tribes, from Basrah to Kut, profess the Sunni-Mahommedan faith (allegiance to the Sultan as Khalifa). From Kut northwards they are more usually Shiaz Mahommedans (allegiance to the Shah), and the two sects are invariably in a state bordering on hostilities with one another. Even the factions of a tribe—and Mesopotamia's million inhabitants are divided up into about sixty tribes— frequently indulge the most murderous vendettas. These usually start with the carrying off of young girls. This, in Arab-land, is the insult direct. It means: "Your women are too low for us to intermarry with. We prefer them as concubines." Not infrequently these girl raids may be organised by none other than the chief tribal Sheikh himself, because the more his factions dissipate their strength in internal wrangling the stronger is his position when it comes to tribute day. Our Intelligence, for obvious reasons, encouraged this internal wrangling as long as there was a war on. It weakened potential foes.

Much of the above applies equally to the Sedentary or Marsh Arab, except that for low, mean cunning and trickery he is a long way ahead of brother Nomad. The Sedentary Arab, who lives in mud villages by the Tigris, is little less than a human vulture in all things. He is a born liar and thief and coward, and a man of the lowest morals and of the dirtiest habits. Whenever there was a battle or engagement, there would be your Marsh Arab, hanging on to the fringe of it, plundering and often mutilating the dead—the latter to please his womankind.

Once a party of pilferers, obviously directed by a German or Turkish officer, "visited" the tents and marquees of one of our British headquarters. They stole everything, even articles from the dressing-table less than a yard distant from the sleeping occupant of a tent. They also stole a number of documents from the general's quarters.

As for the women of the country, they can hardly have been a source of much worry to our contre-espionage. Here were women fashioned as at home. Did they read? Write? Had they a will, an individuality? Opinions? The faintest conception of this "sorry scheme of things entire" Had they the slightest interest in life outside their four mud walls? Were they thinking, reasoning creatures at all?

The oft-told tale, supposed to be "fascinating," of women of the East is a simple tale. Women endowed with a brain, a body, a soul, the same as the Queen of England— tackling their allotted span as cattle, only speaking instead of lowing.

In Baghdad alone was there a suggestion of woman raising her head. In isolated cases the seclusion of the harem was even being broken. I remember at the cinema one night sitting close to a box occupied by a mnage a cinq. The youngest and latest, aged about twelve, appeared to be on the best possible terms with the oldest and fast-fading wife, possibly aged thirty. Occasionally they took a sidelong peep at " the house," but for the most part all one saw were eyebrows over the yashmak. My lord deigned to speak to all in turn, appearing strictly neutral. But it was the latest and youngest he kept closest to him, on his right, her temporary place in the sun.

In Baghdad women were even thinking of espionage. One morning, in effect, a young Baghdadis presented herself in the Intelligence room at 6.H.Q. then located at the British Residency. She had been, she said, the dear friend of the German consul, and had been left behind by him to spy on the English. She was to have earned the equivalent of 10 a month for this, but so far had not received a penny, so she was now ready to change over into the service of the new masters of Baghdad.

It appeared that during the Turko-German occupation she had been employed at the Arab theatre leading off the bazaar, and accordingly attention was immediately directed to this place of weird entertainment lest any further agents might be included in the company.

It was certainly an extraordinary setting for spy-hunting.

In the body of the hall, about the same size and shape as a very surburban cinema building, the Arabs squatted on stools and sofas, sipping coffee and eating sweetmeats or puffing at cigarettes and hookahs. Up above in box and balcony sat the Sahibs. East and West might not intermingle.

Nor might any native women be of the audience. That pungent odour of the East, indescribable in ink, pervaded the place. An orgy of bilious hues and a permeating odour—such are the main ingredients of any Arab gatherings. The show was divided into two parts: (1) Singing, (2) Comic. It is questionable which was the more distressing. The company, as at all theatres in this part of the world, consisted of a mandolin player, a zitherist, a violinist, and three bints or girls, each of the latter weighed down with a jingling chain of golden pieces—the wearer's ever-increasing dowry, the public symbol of her perfectly private success off the boards.

The bints did all the work. These three were Armenians, whiter by far than many a maiden from Soho or Saffron Hill. For hours on end they sang and danced till in sheer desperation some lesser sheikh or temporary second lieutenant hurled a five-rupee note on to the stage. The Arabs threw coins, the Tommies, woodbines. Never a hand clap. But the girl went on. On the principle of twisting the donkey's tail, she knew there was more money to come.

The Arab song is always the same—a rhapsody likening the loved one to the moon and to the stars, her voice to a cascade of goat's milk, her eyes to this, her arms to that. In fact, towards the end, things get quite personal. It is all a weird mixture of wailing and of shrill notes, monotonously level of key, the words seemingly strung one to the other, to be paragraphed with a pause and a deep breath every half verse or so.

Of music you noted little save a rising and falling as the dancer stamped madly or wriggled slowly. The stamping hardly ever stopped; each verse, in fact, would be accompanied throughout by a little stamp of the foot, a shaking of the breasts, and a backward and forward movement of the head like a pigeon on the Piazza San Marco. Then came the dance—chosen according to the audience. If the A.P.M. were in front, or a party of sisters or some hurra Sahibs (as distinct from chota Sahibs), then the show would be quite tiresomely subdued. However, on nine nights out of ten, the native audience got its pound of flesh. The dance was Nautch, impure and simple, first subdued and suggestive, next brazenly daring, lastly—exhaustion and collapse, the height of joy being reached, the audience gurgling with delight, as the dancer donned the veil and proceeded to burlesque the ladies left at home—a skit on the forced efforts of a fading wife trying to recapture her man by former wiles.

It was all very cruel and was liked the more for being so. It tickled the Arab's vanity to be reminded that he had got somebody caged up at home straining to answer his slightest whim.

On the night of our visit, one of the company, a young Armenian lady with only one eye, which was, however, extremely glad, after obliging with a waltz and a Highland fling— the latter taught her by a "Scottie" in the billet—broke into a really fearful travesty of "Until."

"No-Rose-in-all-the-world" — that monotone wail, for all the world like the wind moaning through a forest in Norway! Nor was it improved by the zitherist-mandolin people carrying on airily with the previous accompaniment, that of the Highland fling. The Arabs looked up at us. So this was English music! Poor Marycka! She had meant so well.

Part 2 consisted of a harlequinade, the whole development of which would be controlled by a buffoon in Merryandrew attire. This gentleman handed out physical humour only; the spoken word counted for nought. He was either smacking the company with a long and resonant lathe—each in turn, follow my leader—or was extracting imaginary teeth or pinching everybody's nose with a pincers. The loudest smack and the loudest squeal brought down the house. Sometimes one of the lady members of the company resented a particularly hearty smack and, dealing the donor a swinging blow on the head, walked off the stage. In the wings you saw the manager coaxing her to go back. Should she do so, the audience chortled with glee as, presently, she would receive a second and even more resonant smack. And so the pantomime of blows and pinches went on for a whole hour.

And afterwards, outside the stage door, behold the usual "masher" in position—the tarboosh and abbas displacing the opera hat and dinner jacket, and a braying donkey doing duty for the ticking taxi.

Nothing doing.

Never was a Gaiety ingenue more jealously guarded by an unsuccessful father than were Marycka or Zacchia of the Baghdad Bazaar. Behind a screen of scowling relatives, a bevy of small brothers acting as outriders, you saw them conducted away into the night … their continued virtue, the family stand-by.

Night in Baghdad.

Baghdad captivates not in the noisy, brilliant bustle of day but rather in the stillness of midnight, its domes and minarets standing against the crescent moon, an all-pervading calm even to the empty, echoing bazaar. Then is the time to stroll along those endless winding alleys, where Baghdad lives, to capture the atmosphere one has read and heard, of—the military momentarily gone from the scene, nothing to mar one's reverie. The evil in Baghdad, the nonstop sordid battle for worldly gain, is a day affair; by night as you pass these ramshackle abodes, now catching the soft-voiced lullaby of a mother, now held by the rich chant of an Arab ... night wipes out the day.

Perhaps the most successful and the most typical spy east of Suez was a young German.

Once a fortnight the Intelligence Branch of our General Staff used to issue a map showing the distribution of the enemy's forces in Eastern theatres of war. Across one whole corner of this map appeared, printed in red ink, the word " Wassmuss." The area covered by this one word equalled several times that of England. The whole of this country, Southern Persia, was under the influence of the young German consul Wassmuss—that was what the writing on the map meant.

Wassmuss stood for all that was skilful, cunning, thorough and dangerous in the German system of Eastern penetration. Before the war, though only a young man in the early twenties, his consulate at Bushire was the most imposing of all the local European establishments. His frequent receptions to the local dignitaries and headmen of the surrounding tribes were designed to impress—and duly did so. In November, 1914, we tried to capture this young gentleman but, like the Goeben, he escaped, and a human Goeben he was destined to remain throughout the war, a constant menace, a polifical force to be reckoned with, and one which served to immobilise thousands of British troops.

Knowing Persian like a native, conversant with every detail of Persian habits and customs, Wassmuss retired to the hinterland, taking with him large sums of German gold. There his self-set mission was to act as a spy for Germany, to hold Southern Persia under German influence, and to make things thoroughly disagreeable for the British, and in all three spheres he achieved a fabulous one-man success. First one tribe and then another attacked us. As a result British reinforcements had to be sent to Persia at a time when every man was urgently needed elsewhere.

Wassmuss had his spies and agents throughout Persia, and except for three companions—two Germans and a Swiss—he employed only Persians. Some of these men belonged to the chief families in the land; others were mere fisherfolk by the Gulf. Throughout the war Wassmuss maintained constant communication with Berlin through Liman von Sanders at Constantinople.

The state of military preparations in India, the disposition of our forces in Mesopotamia, and the despatch of troops to other theatres of war—all became known to him, and the information was duly forwarded on. Owners of large sailing-boats flying between India and Persia brought him information. Fishermen saw troopships passing, noted the size, and Wassmuss calculated the numbers on board. Goods consigned to Persia from India indicated the description and strength of troops proceeding to France and Egypt—thus the despatch of a case of soap indicated that a brigade of Indian infantry was leaving for the West, and so on. Any unusual preparations among the British troops in Persia were at once reported to Wassmuss by servants, agents of his employed about the British encampments and in the officers' messes.

While Wassmuss was thus organising active resistance to the British and impeding their military arrangements, his three companions were touring Persia and getting into touch with, and counter-bribing spies in the pay of England. One of the three, Brugmann, was ultimately caught by the British. The circumstances of his capture are worth relating.

One afternoon while three British cavalry officers and an Intelligence officer were playing tennis in their encampment on the Persian Gulf, an aged Persian sidled up to the court and quietly started picking up the balls and returning them to the players. He was a British agent, and this was his cunning Eastern way of getting in touch with the Intelligence officer and making his report. This particular report had to do with Brugmann. The latter intended, it seemed, to proceed in a sailing-boat from the Persian coast to India disguised as a Persian trader, make his way up to Afghanistan, and there foment trouble likely to cause England grave anxiety.

Five days before Brugmann left his village in the hinterland, looking in every way the middle-aged carpet dealer of Shiraz, the British Intelligence knew exactly where he intended to land in India. The boatmen conveying Brugmann, although heavily bribed and thoroughly trusted by the German, were actually in British pay. Owing to the darkness, however, a hitch occurred in the landing, and Brugmann came ashore five miles from the spot where a British cavalry patrol was awaiting him. The German, with a heavily laden donkey, actually stepped ashore directly opposite the British encampment, but succeeded in making his way through the swamps and quicksands and desert outside the British lines with only the stars and his instinct to guide him, and duly arrived at the house of a friend in Bushire. Unfortunately for him this house was known to the British as the one to which he was proceeding, and he had barely arrived before it was surrounded by Indian troops. Objections were raised by the owner that his womenfolk were inside and that therefore no one could enter. He was told to place the ladies in his harem, and this having been done, a British officer walked in with a loaded revolver and Brugmann gave himself up.

The whole story of the work of these German spies and agents in Persia is an outstanding example of what clever and determined men can do when actuated by devotion to their country. Long after Brugmann had been captured—he was chivalrously spared from execution, by the way—Wassmuss continued to be a thorn in the side of the British. The constant threat of attack on Bushire by tribesmen, of which he was the virtual chief, immobilised thousands of British troops in the Gulf; four warships were constantly employed in endeavouring to intercept dhows bringing him ammunition from across the sea.

Wassmuss invented his own war news for Persian consumption, and when we attacked on the Somme in 1916 he counter-blasted by pinning up at his home at Ahram exclusive information that the Germans had landed in England and killed King George! And the news spread throughout the land.

At this period the British authorities offered 50,000 to anyone handing the amazing man over. Yet, in spite of the fact that he was then the only white man among all these wild tribesmen, that his stocks of money were running out, and that he was a Christian and an infidel, Wassmuss was never given up. Why? As these Easterners afterwards explained, because the sum offered was ridiculous; no man was worth so much, and therefore the offer could not have been serious!

As soon as Wassmuss ran out of funds he began issuing paper promises to pay; towards the end he actually persuaded his Persians to pay him a monthly salary of three hundred rupees. They also fed and clothed him, and gave him a horse. Wassmuss was thorough, very thorough. He not only endured great hardship by constant association

with the most uncleanly people in the East, but also proceeded pro patria to marry a Persian girl, the daughter of one of the headmen among whom he lived.

And now one closing tale from the East—how Baghdad fell.

A couple of days after Sir Stanley Maude had made his classic crossing of the Tigris at Shumrum and Weffs careering ahead towards Baghdad—it would be at the end of February, 1917—a lapse on the part of Nazim, commanding the retreating Turks, caused a leakage of information in our favour of transcendent importance. Nazim was in holy terror before the German Chief of Staff, Kritchmeyer, at Mosul, and it was due in no small measure to this "nerviness" that ... well, he said something he shouldn't have.

Upon having the vital information conveyed to him, Sir Stanley, whose strategy had always first to be submitted to Whitehall, cabled home saying he proposed continuing his advance on Baghdad.

The War Office, in ignorance of what had transpired on the spot, cabled back:

“You advance at your own risk."

A lesser soldier might have quaked before such a threatening "we-wash-our-hands-of- your-campaign" message. It merely spurred Maude on.

And someone, since, has pinned the words to the wooden cross above him, where he lies beneath a simple earthen mound in the city of the ages he conquered ... just as Scott's frozen sepulchre is better far than a hundred abbeys, so it is with Maude of Baghdad beneath his earthen mound.

The story that Maude was murdered arose in this way:

Within a week of his death, eight Indians were hanged at Baghdad, and of course the two events were at once bracketed by the "know-alls" of war. In point of fact, the Indians were executed for high treason and had been incarcerated many weeks before the Commander-in-Chief even fell ill. Sir Stanley was in a weak state, else he would probably have recovered. During Baghdad's terrible summer that year he, almost alone of his staff, declined to go on leave by aeroplane and torpedo-boat to the Indian hills, but kept on plodding away. Always a stupendous worker, never satisfied unless he was au fait with every detail of the staff work done at his headquarters; he was a great stickler for etiquette, too, and it is related of him that rather than mess like the others in his shirt- sleeves—which the temperature imperatively demanded, yet which he disapproved of— he would dine alone in his quarters, in full field kit though well knowing the physical exhaustion such action entailed.

On the evening of November 14th, 1917, the Commander-in-Chief attended a performance of Hamlet given by Jewish children, this being his first appearance at such a public function since the occupation. Subsequently he was prevailed upon to remain to dinner. He took milk with his coffee, being one of the few who did so, and it was undoubtedly the milk, which was fresh, that carried the cholera germ, for those who took it all fell ill.

Forty-eight hours later the Commander-in-Chief suddenly collapsed. His malady was at once diagnosed—there was a slight epidemic in the city at the time—but he rallied after the first day sufficiently to discuss military matters. It was freely thought he would pull through, but his constitution had been undermined, and at 6 p.m. on the 18th came a second and final collapse, the Commander-in-Chief dying in the same room in which the German Commander-in-Chief, Von der Goltz, breathed his last from spotted fever about two years before.

 

British armies in Mesopotamia - pages from 'The War Illustrated'