War Crimes in the Desert

’Heat and disease in Mesopotamia did the work of gun and aeroplane in France.’ That’s the start of one of the stories in Hesketh Pearson’s Iron Rations (1928). Since there isn’t much good fiction about the Middle Eastern campaign during the Great War (Philip Macdonald’s excellent Patrol being the main exception), it’s good to come across this disenchanted and tough-minded collection of stories and sketches.
I knew Pearson as a genial biographer, of Shaw, Gilbert and Sullivan, Conan Doyle, Sidney Smith and others (if you’ve never read The Smith of Smiths, give yourself a treat) but had not previously thought of him either as a writer of fiction, or as a soldier.
In many ways, these stories are typical of the twenties. Freed from the reticence suitable for wartime, the writer takes a caustic look at the campaign and at his fellow-soldiers. The mood is heavily ironic. There are caustic accounts of officers like ‘The Base Barnacle’, who looks after himself very comfortably, while others do the work of fighting. One of his more memorable characters is Major Trotters,  a swine of an officer who

was a model English gentleman. That is to say, he never spoke to a social inferior without making the latter feel his inferiority.

The stories also express considerable contempt for the natives, who in the title story, ‘Iron Rations’, are reduced by famine to cannibalism.
The most remarkable story is one called ‘The Last Inhabitant’, an anecdote about a savage war crime. Accounts of soldiers’ misdemeanours are not unknown in soldiers’ books of the mid-twenties; both Wilfrid Ewart and Stephen Graham describe incidents of the shooting of prisoners by British troops in France. Pearson’s story is more shocking, however. A soldier tells of the fighting after the fall of Baghdad, when the Turks were retreating to Feluja (now Fallujah, and the site of some of the bitterest fighting of the recent Iraq War – these stories are full of reminders of contemporary situations).
Local tribesmen begin murdering sentries,

Our Colonel went mad when he heard of it. He swore by all the gods that he’s shoot every ‘bloody Buddoo’ in the neighbourhood, and he’d have done it too if there hadn’t been a political wallah with us.

More sentries are knifed, and when the political officer goes to Baghdad for instructions, the Colonel gives  orders for  punitive action. Four detachments are sent out in different directions to inflict summary punishment on the surrounding villages. The narrator heads out with one of these, but the villages the soldiers come across are deserted. They are burnt to the ground.
On the third day, they finally find the large village, surrounded by the black tents of refugees from the other villages. The soldiers attack:

Thomson shouted one word to the men as we thundered across the clearing between the protective ridge and the first tents. That word was ‘Kill.’

The slaughter is remorseless (‘Thank god! The women had already cleared out.’) and the tents and houses are burnt down. At the last moment, a crying is heard, and a new-born baby is found. An officer shoots it, and the killing is justified because ‘a bullet was the only alternative to starvation’. The narrator finishes the story by asking ‘Tell me: what would you have done?’
This story has special resonance because in 1914 one of the major charges against the Germans had been that they took excessive reprisals against Belgian civilians when attacked by franc-tireurs. Britain was outraged by the atrocity stories, but soldiers probably understood the logic of the German actions. In 1918 Philip Gibbs describes talking with British officers who are afraid that they might be forced into similar measures if the occupation of Germany encounters civilian resistance. What else could they do?

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