Dec 10th 1917
My dearest Mela
When I last wrote I was aware that we were going to have a little bit of war in this direction, but it would have been contrary to instructions to say so just then. I pretty well knew that I could not personally become involved, nor did I beyond the move in the line which I spoke of which was really a result of the general scheme. It is apparently all over now, and has achieved a certain amount though the Turks have been too wary since Ramadie to be really badly caught. They are extraordinarily hard to catch just at present. This time they seem to have been well frightened, and started burning their coal mines at Kifri which they expected us to reach; they must have been sick with themselves when we turned back without even trying to push on there.
At the present rate if they want to prepare an attack they will have to mass their material a very long way out from our main lines of defence wherever they want to attack from. They cannot feel safe anywhere within about 50 miles of us, for fear lest a great overwhelming force suddenly pounces down on them and clears off with all their stuff besides damage to their men etc. I am not sure that they have dared to return to Tekrit even, after the expedition up the Tigris that drove them out from there.
To my considerable disappointment there has been no mail for ten days, and as there was no letter from you by the last mail it seems ages since I heard. I was told however that a mail is somewhere about, but I think recent movements locally have hindered it to some extent. The chance of getting it tomorrow are quite respectable, in which case I shall just have time to acknowledge such letters as may come by it.
Referring to my note-book I find I am making false statements. It was the last mail but one that had no letter from you; but last mail yours was six days older than one from Father.
By the way when you refer to arrival of any letters from me please mention the date as I keep a record of all letters I send and get, and often you say you have heard and I cannot tell which letter of mine it was that you had had.
I started this letter just before dinner, and am now continuing after dinner, while sitting up waiting for my turn of duty which begins at 9.45. As a rule I turn in to bed pretty soon after dinner. There is not much encouragement to sit up, and one is liable to be very sleepy by 8.30 or 9.0pm. out here. As I am very lazy if not up by 7.0 in the morning, and as two hours are cut out of every night it does not mean any excess of sleep to be in bed at 9.0.
Tonight seems likely to turn out the coldest we have had so far. It was cloudy this afternoon with a strong north-west wind that made it quite the coolest afternoon we had had. As it cleared after sunset, and cloudless nights are generally the coldest I expect it will be decidedly chilly later on. It has made a very good start anyhow.
My abode is a fair sized dug out, well covered by a tent spread rather flat. It is very wind-proof and relatively warm.
We have been very busy today constructing a new officers’ mess which is to be half dug out, and half built up, and ought to be very comfortable when complete. One has to trust to luck not to be moved away immediately after completing erections of this sort, and at present the [?] seem to make it worthwhile attempting it.
The soil in this country is splendid for underground architecture; it is very firm and can be carved into all sorts of shapes. Then we can always make air and sun-dried bricks of mud with a fine stable litter to act as a binder, provided the water supply is good enough; or as an alternative mud walls can be made direct but they are not quite so good as the brick. Unless it is definitely wet and raining the drying power of the air is always wonderful.
The special point of our mess is to be a fire place, which at present is not yet made. We get a certain amount of fuel issued for burning in braziers in cold weather, but a fire place, if it can be made to work will be a great improvement on any brazier.
Seats we carve out of the soil, just the right space being left between to take our table (a purchase from an Arab village early in summer, and since enlarged and improved, and very carefully treasured); shelves of course are easy, and the staircase entrance a familiar structure in many diggings. The roof will require some ingenuity owing to scarcity of material, but I think it can be managed to resist all ordinary wet.
My letter is being interrupted by expeditions to stalk jackals and dogs which swarm round about at night, and to some extent by day. They provide good revolver practice, but are jolly hard to hit as a rule, as they generally keep at a good distance except when it is dark. My last tour bears out my anticipations about the temperature.
There is no doubt I think that living through the summer out here makes one feel the cold very much more; I wish I had a thermometer to see actually what the temperature is these nights.
I must go out now for my long walk in the dark. As I shall be only too ready to get into a comfortable bed (I should have thought it mighty uncomfortable from years ago) on return I will finish this tomorrow.
11th – It was cold last night, beyond my greatest expectations. This morning a slab of ice an inch thick was shown me off a wash basin in the cookhouse. One officer informed me that when he was getting up the washing water in his bucket was freezing over again after the original layer had been removed by his servant. This morning is cloudless, and fresh with a strong N-W wind. As the ground is as dry as a bone the frost has no effect upon it whatever, so is not very noticeable.
I discovered this morning that in one of my interludes to writing last night I secured a second victim to my revolver shooting. As the beast ran off in the darkness I thought I must have missed him, but he collapsed only a short way away. I hope in time to make all these beastly jackals avoid our camp pretty carefully.
One rather annoying thing about our present distribution is that the officers have to split up into three separate little messes, which is rather dull although we interchange for meals fairly frequently. Walking more than a few hundred yards for all meals is not good enough as a regular practice.
At present, and for several weeks past our padre, Rev Vernon Clough (one time a curate in South London, a Cambridge man a little senior to me), has lived with us. He found our position very much more central for getting round to his scattered duties, HQ at that time being most inconveniently placed for his purpose. He has many other units to go to besides this regiment of course. They have moved to a more convenient place now, but he is very happy as he is, and I like him very well. He and I spent all yesterday afternoon digging together at our mess.
He read mathematics and physics at Cambridge which is unusual for anybody going on to take orders. He is pretty energetic in taking services, and keen on his job. Just now when I have only one other officer actually here for messing (he lives at a little distance off too) it is pleasant to have someone else about for company. I am expecting another officer back in a day or two who has been doing a special job for some weeks.
In another month or two we ought to be able to be nearly certain whether the Turks intend to attempt to retake Bagdad as not. I do not for a moment believe they will. If by the middle of February there are no signs of accumulating forces and material it will be hot weather before he can be ready. The interesting point then will be to see whether it is decided to keep all the present forces here through the summer or not.
By the time another cool season comes round I hope the general situation will be such as to decide Turkey entirely against any offensive anywhere. We are having so easy a time here that it seems too much to hope it can last forever. The time may perhaps be ahead when we may be told to go on, in which case everybody may be kept here with that in view. On the whole it is not unreasonable to suppose that it may be decided before another hot weather to move some troops away, and there are strong arguments for expecting that if any formation were sent we should be among them. I doubt whether anybody knows at all definitely what will happen; certainly we don’t.
We can only suggest such alternatives as a knowledge of conditions makes reasonable. There have been at least two occasions when a move out of the country has seemed to be one of the possibilities; the first after the fall of Kut, the second after the defeat of the Turks last February, and before anybody knew whether we were to go for Bagdad or not. Had they only decided upon holding Kut it is improbable that the Turks would ever have thought it worth the effort of attempting to regain it. Also with length of communications favouring us enormously it would have been a fairly easy place to hold with comparatively few men. However on both occasions it turned out that we were still kept here, and I continue to regard that as the most likely of the two alternatives until something definitely crops up that points the other way.
If it ever really seems likely that we shall be kept doing very little for long periods I should feel inclined to try and see if I could not get some sort of special work in my professional capacity. In any other prospect I should never have the face to suggest leaving the battalion. I know chemical jobs are going in the army, chiefly I suppose in France, but unfortunately I know nothing about them and don’t quite know how I could raise information: and one cannot make applications for things one knows nothing about. I probably know men who are doing that sort of work, but I don’t know who they are or where they are, so it does not help much. But I should like to secure work of the kind for at least three reasons. It would prevent me forgetting all my old knowledge which I am rapidly doing. It might be of great service in securing satisfactory work after the war. And it would probably carry very much better pay than what I am getting at present.
Supposing you come across anybody who knows anything about jobs of the kind, will you get all the information you can and let me have it on the chance of my wanting to use it.
Meanwhile let us hope that Germany having been well beaten will collapse utterly. She does not seem to have spared efforts to recover the position at Cambrai. It seems to have been a fair and square pitched battle, entirely in our favour up to our latest news.
I wonder whether the ration cart will bring a letter after lunch. I hope so.
Best love dear as ever, from
Your ever devoted
Cyril E Sladden