The big question raised by Hesketh Pearson’s Iron Rations stories, first published in 1928, is: What basis do they have in fact?
To find out, I took a look at his autobiography, Hesketh Pearson By Himself (1965) to see what he said about the book nearly forty years later:
My War stories had been written about seven years before they were published, their chief merit being that with a single exception they were absolutely true in substance and detail, their chief defect being that the satire was laboured and juvenile.
This claim to truth is confirmed by the chapter ‘Wartime’, in which he describes his career in the A.S.C. in Mesopotamia. He re-tells some of the stories as straight autobiography, sometimes in the same words.
One story that I had assumed was exaggeration is presented here as straight fact. It is the horrifying account of how he was sent to the country around Hamadan in Persia (now Iran, of course) to report on the condition of the people. Successive occupations by Turks and Cossacks had left them starving, and ‘those who had not been starved or frozen to death and who had the strength to stand on their feet were more like famished wolves than human beings.’
Walking with his Persian guide through Hamudan (‘a veritable hive of stinking lanes and depopulated bazaars’) he hears ‘a roar of angry brutal voices’ and finds a mob attacking two women. Getting closer, he discovers that the women are being stoned to death, because ‘they had gone mad mad with hunger and had eaten their own children.’
Later he meets the man who had been Chief of Gendarmes in Hamadan, and asks about the women.
‘I suppose they were both killed,’ I said, more to end the subject than from curiosity.
‘Killed? Yes. And cooked, my dear sir.’
Once again, the story ends with a question. ‘But what would you? The people were so hungry.’
Is the story of the massacre of civilians the ‘single exception’ among the true stories? I think a more likely candidate for that is the tale in which a dishonest soldier boasts about the thieving he engaged in while in the Army, and which he is now continuing in Ireland, presumably as a member of the Black and Tans.
There is no mention of the massacre story in the autobiography, however, and in the book of short stories it is told by a separate narrator, not by Pearson himself – so my guess is that this is based on an incident he heard about, but with which he was not himself involved.