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Updated June 2012

T. E. Lawrence to his family


May 18, 1916

We are at sea, somewhere off Aden, I suppose, so before it gets too late I am going to tell you something of what I saw in Mesopotamia. You must excuse the writing, because the ship is vibrating queerly.

I went off, as I told you about March 22: the transport I went on was the Royal_George, a comfortable Canadian liner - and we got out to Kuweit without any happening of note. At Kuweit - which is a wide inlet of the sea, with low sand-dunes round it, very desolate, but for the town which is neatly and regularly built - we transhipped on to a fast mail-steamer, the Elephanta, of about 6,000 tons. This took us across the bar at the mouth of the Shatt el Arab, and up to Basra in the day. The joining of the river and the sea on the bar was very visible, as it was a quiet day. The river came down in a grey-green flood, and stopped abruptly in the sea, which was a heavy blue. You could have straddled anywhere, one foot on each water. The line was not straight though. It ran up and down irregularly as the tide pressed it, and you could follow it for hundreds of yards each side of the ship.

The bar is about 18 feet under high tide, but it is really only a cushion of liquid mud, and ships plough through it. It looks odd to see the propeller churning in stuff like chocolate cream. After a few miles of bar you get into the estuary of the rivers. It is about ½ a mile wide shortly after, and at high tide the banks are marked only by rows of palm trees, for all Mesopotamia, to Kurna, is under high-tide level. The salt-water does not go so far up, but its weight in the mouth banks the fresh water up for three or four feet at Basra. The palm-trees get flooded every day, with a mixture of salt and fresh water which seems to agree with them. If the people want to keep the water out of any part they throw up a little dyke, three or four feet high, and as many thick. This is water-tight, for the alluvium is most rich clay. They get a double crop off the land, by sowing barley or wheat between the palm-trees.

We went up to Basra - 60 or 70 miles from the sea - at top-speed, about 18 knots, and the river was never less than 300 yards wide. Generally it was a good five hundred. There was only one single-track place, where the Turks has sunk three German ships in a line across the stream to block our passage. The current slewed one steamer round, though, just as she was sinking, and so there is still free way. On the way up we passed - at Abadan - the depot of the Anglo Persian Oil Company. You will remember the petrol wells in Persia in which the Admiralty bought a controlling interest, and whose protection was the first object of the Mesopotamian expedition... well, they bring the oil down about 150 miles across country in a pipe, and refine it here. It is mostly reserved for warships. It looks odd to come opposite a bare space in the palm groves, and to see there, banked up a little from the stream, workshops and villas, iron-roofed huts, and oil-storage tanks. It is a very large plant.

A little way above Abadan, on the Persian side, is the mouth of the Karun river, a broad and very swift stream, full of silt. The town of Mohammerah lies nearly at their joining, but you can see very little of it, as there are palm-groves between it and the Shatt el Arab. You do see however a country house of the Sheikh of Mohammerah, prettily built in a half-European style of yellow brick. In the whole river-valley, from the sea to Baghdad, there is not a stone as big as your finger-nail, and so the building material is either mud, or bricks of river mud, burnt lightly in a fire of reeds to a pale yellow colour. This brick disintegrates slowly in water, it is so soft. The Sheikh of Mohammerah is nominally a Persian subject, but in reality independent, and allied to us. He is very wealthy, and has lent us his river palace at Basra as a hospital. We are fortunate in having big native friends on each side of the river, for the Sheikh of Kuweit, on the Arabian bank, is also our ally. The father, Mubarah, began the friendship, but the son, Jabar, now reigning, seems quite anxious to maintain it.

I don't really know what to say about Basra itself. You know you have got there by the crowd of ships in the river, and by a few houses along the shore:- the town lies some two or three miles up a side-stream, deep enough only for small boats.

However our headquarters are on the bank, and there are usually dozens of row-boats and launches along the shore... no wharves, no piers, no signs of a port, no roads:- no one would ever dream that we had been in occupation of the place for months and months. When I landed it was pouring with rain, and dark. The officer who brought me off got a lamp, and we slid over the top of what seemed to be a bank of soft soap and toffee for about three hundred yards. Then it got better, for they had thrown some clinkers on the mud: so we stood upright (how my shoes resisted remaining in the tacky glue of the first part I don't know) and passed down a garden into the headquarter house. It was water-tight, and I found Miss Bell and Campbell-Thompson there, so that was well.

Next day I had a lot to do, so walked about and saw the place. The river side (where we were) is still all palm-gardens, in which rows of palms set as close as their heads allow stand in about six inches of water over a soil like blanc mange. You can stick a stick into any part of Basra about ten feet into the ground. There are houses built on little embankments in these gardens, where the consuls and rich men used to live, and paths about ten feet wide, on banks staked at the sides to about two feet above the water, join house to house. You follow these banks up the side stream to Basra (they become quite a broad carriage road some way inland because the level rises a little) which is a small very simple Arab town, with a covered bazaar in which there was nothing native that appealed to me. Trade with the interior is cut off, and Basra itself is not a place with any industry but boat-building. Round about Basra proper there are a good many other settlements which are counted in it as a rule; and these lead you out to Zobeir, a town about 8 miles from the river, on the edge of the Arabian Desert. This lies a little high, and is used as a summer residence by Basra people, because its air is clean. The people of Zobeir are Bedouin.

The native boats give a character to Basra. They are everywhere, for you use the creeks and canals and side-streams as roadways, and shop or pay your calls in a "Bellam". A bellam is a sort of gondola, thirty or forty feet long, about four feet wide, and shallow. Two men work them, either by sculls, or by poling along with a light bamboo. They are not very heavily built, but are much more clumsy than a punt. In the Euphrates lakes they use a sort whose prows are often six feet above the water, but the Basra sort are nearly flat. There is usually ten inches or a foot of freeboard. The bellam is the passenger boat... and the Mahaila the cargo boat. Mahailas sit on the water like the scooped third of a melon-rind: they perk up in front and behind, and in the middle are nearly flush with the water. Their sides have the most lovely curves, and the sheer up of the strakes to the stem and stern post is very beautiful. I wish I could send you a drawing of one. They have a single heavy mast, raked forward, and on that a great lateen sail. When they are coming towards you they look like that wonderful drawing in the Yellow Book (or is it the Savoy?) of the Vikings sailing into the cave of the dead men. Unfortunately they give them only a spiked prow not dragon jaws.

I only stayed three days in Basra, as the G.O.C. and all his staff were up at the front. The people at the base gave me some biscuits, ten loaves, ten tins of ham, ten tins of beef, and put me on board a little paddle steamer that had been a ferry on the Irrawaddy. Downstairs she was all engines, and the top was a flat deck partly sheltered by an awning. The front 2/3 of the deck was occupied by about 150 territorials: behind the funnel was a smaller space, in which sat about ten of us, who all had ten tins etc. Each side of the steamer was tied a 100 foot steel barge, loaded deep with firewood and forage and stores. These were intended partly to increase her carrying capacity, but more to act as buffers and protect the paddles when we charged the bank.

We started in the afternoon, and shortly it began to rain... so we went to bed... We also went to bed whenever the wind was too cold to endure walking about, and when it was not either wet or cold it was both at once. As there was no cabin bed was a valise on the deck. If you lay on the open deck you only got wet when it rained: if you lay under the awning you avoided the thick of the shower, but endured a persistent drip for hours after the rain had stopped. However it was dry inside the valise. The men had no valises, but enough waterproof sheets to make a sort of tent. So they could be either dry and cold, or wet and warm, and their tastes seemed equally divided. I censored one man's letter home, in which he said "We are in the tropics, and this is the old Garden of Eden. I am glad to say that so far I have not felt the heat!" Pneumonia was the prevalent disease at the time, so I don't suppose he had!

It took us six days to reach the front. The first night we anchored near Kurna, which is a mud village just at the fork where the Euphrates comes in. The Euphrates is the old colour but only about 1/5 the size it is at Jerabis. To this point the Tigris is about 500 yards wide, and runs slowly. Above Kurna the tide is not felt at all, and the river for two days runs strongly, winding and twisting in all directions, and from 52 yards to 150 yards wide. The second night we spent at Ezra's tomb, which is a clump of trees and a few mud houses, and beside them, just on the bank, a domed mosque and courtyard of yellow brick, with some simple but beautiful glazed brick of a dark green colour built into the walls in bands and splashes. It is the most elaborate building between Basra and Ctesiphon.

The third night we tied up at Amara, a town built I think by Abdul Hamid, all on one harmonious plan. It stretches regularly down a long river front for a mile or so, all of yellow brick set in dark mortar, with deep shadowed door-ways, and fretted windows, and much pleasant ornament on parapets and walls. In the middle of the front is the entrance to a high brick-vaulted arcade of a bazaar, in which you could get all that a poor Arab wants.

After Amara there were little places like Ali Shergi and Ali Gharbi, and Sheikh Saad, between which we spent the fourth and fifth nights. The river had been made small between Amara and Kurna because some large irrigation canals took off on the east bank: north of these it widened out again to three or four hundred yards, but still ran rapidly.

As for the country itself I should think it would be one of the hardest in the world to describe. As far North as Kurna you see only rows of date-gardens, which are simple enough; just light green sunny tree tops, and under these straight regular rows of brown stems hardly distinguishable in the shade. After Kurna though you run out into open meadow country, which you might be able to write about if you were on the spot - and if the precise spot was not the windy deck of a steamer full of people wondering when the next rain storm was coming down. To the west as far as your eye could see (with mists in foul weather and mirage in fine this is not far) the country looks like a shaggy Port Meadow. It grows a thick crop of coarse grass and reeds, and every few hundred yards is a shallow pool, or a marsh. Not a tree, nor a bush, nor a mound, only sometimes the old waving banks of abandoned water channels meandering away into the distance. When the river rises in April it becomes one water-splash in which the course of the river is indistinguishable, for the whole country is below high-flood level. There are rice fields in the swamps, barley fields on the banks, and occasionally a mud-walled river-garden of palms or apricot trees. Near Amara there were some willow-trees. We saw some wild boar, and jackals, and everywhere quantities of water-birds.

On the East, sometimes thirty or forty miles away, and sometimes only ten or twelve, you can see the long steep parallel ridges of the Persian hills. They were thickly covered with snow, and it was from them that the biting winds we had blew down. The country houses are either of mud, when the owner is rich, or of mats. For security they prefer to build the mat houses on a patch of dry ground in the middle of a swamp. When such is not available they often put up four straight walls of mud brick, with a round tower at each corner, to enclose a space of about 100 yards each way, and then they huddle the mat huts within the yard thus made. The style of these reed and mat huts is curious. Of course they have plenty of giant reeds. They stick two parallel rows of them into the ground about 12 feet apart. Each row will be some 20 feet long, and the reeds are put pretty close together. They then bend down the heads of these reeds till they meet in the middle and are tied there. So you get the framework of a kind of tilt. They scale over this with two or three thicknesses of small plaited mats of stripped cane: and at each end of the tunnel thus made you bed in a standing row of great reeds, and cover these with a wall of mats. There your house is... very cool and sun-proof in summer, but damp and cold in winter.

The Arabs here are wonderfully hard, much rougher and poorer than our Jerablus men, but merry, and full of talk. They are in the water all their lives, and seem hardly to notice it. I shall not soon forget a flood perhaps twenty miles long and wide near Ezra's tomb, where the river had drowned both its banks for as far as one could see... and in the middle, walking up the hidden bank of the river to their necks in water, were three men pulling a laden mahaila up stream. They must have pulled her ten miles wading and swimming so and the nearest place they could hope to reach dry land would be another ten miles ahead. I do not know what English people would have made of such a job.

The steamers have their own way of navigating this river. There are mud banks in it, but so shifting that experience is no help to you. You go ahead hard, and keep a sharp look out. When you run aground you back engines, and if that is insufficient you put out a kedge and warp off. Then there are the corners. These are legion, and many of them hardly as wide as the length of the ship. So you charge full tilt sideways at the outer curve of the bank. Your barge runs into the clay edge with a tremendous bump, and a loud crying noise: sometimes it is pushed right out of the water, and skids over the grass. On board people fall down, and there is a succession of crashes as boxes and baggage topple over. The current presses you on, boring you into the curve, till your barge slips off, and you find yourself floating again. The paddles dash forward, hurl you into the other side of the curve (bump again), and the current again peels you off, and you steam away up or down the next straight reach. The banks are so soft and smooth by the constant repetition of the process that no harm is ever done, so long as the paddle steamer is stout enough amidships not to crack between the pressure of her barges. We had an extra-savage bump once, when the men were standing to attention being served with tins of tea out of a bucket. All those who had tea sat down violently, and poured their tea into their faces. The sergeant with the bucket hurled himself at the rest of the line, and flung it over them. It was too hot for them really to see the point but there was point in the sight of 100 Cumberland territorials unwillingly splashing in hot tea about the decks of a rain-swept river-steamer.

At the front I found Headquarters living in a steamer with good awnings and a saloon! I stayed with them for about three weeks, while Kut fell. We lost too many men at first, in the relief, and then tried too hard in the middle, and before the end everybody was tired out. [three and a quarter lines obscured with Indian ink] The weather cleared up and breeded myriads of flies. At sundown the awning over the deck used to change swiftly from grey to brown, as the swarms alit on it to roost. The cavalry sometimes had to ride at foot pace, being blinded.

Colonel Beach, one of the Mesopotamian Staff, Aubrey Herbert (who was with us in Cairo) and myself were sent up to see the Turkish Commander in Chief, and arrange the release, if possible, of Townshend's wounded. From our front trenches we waved a white flag vigorously: then we scrambled out, and walked about half-way across the 500 yards of deep meadow-grass between our lines and the Turkish trenches. Turkish officers came out to meet us, and we explained what we wanted. They were tired of shooting, so kept us sitting there with our flag as a temporary truce, while they told Halil Pasha we were coming - and eventually in the early afternoon we were taken blind-folded through their lines and about ten miles Westward till within four miles of Kut to his Headquarters. He is a nephew of Enver's, and suffered violent defeat in the Caucasus so they sent him to Mesopotamia as G.O.C. hoping he would make a reputation. He is about 32 or 33, very keen and energetic but not clever or intelligent I thought. He spoke French to us, and was very polite, but of course the cards were all in his hands, and we could not get much out of him. However he let about 1,000 wounded go without any condition but the release of as many Turks - which was all we could hope for.

We spent the night in his camp, and they gave us a most excellent dinner in Turkish style - which was a novelty to Colonel Beach, but pleased Aubrey and myself. Next morning we looked at Kut in the distance, and then came back blindfolded as before. We took with us a couple of young Turkish officers, one the brother-in-law of Jemal Pasha, the other a nephew of Enver, and they afterwards went up to Kut from our camp in the hospital ships which removed the wounded. The ill feeling between Arabs and Turks has grown to such a degree that Halil cannot trust any of his Arabs in the firing line. [three lines obscured with Indian ink] After that there was nothing for us to do, so the Headquarters ship turned round, and came down again to Basra. We got there about the 8th and I spent four or five days settling up things and then came away.

This is an old Leyland liner, now a transport. There is only myself and a General Gillman on board. He is from near Abingdon and excellent company: we sit on the deck and write reports and notes all day, and sleep gigantically at night. The weather at Basra began to get warmer before I left, (but 105° was our highest shade temperature), and there has not been any cold day or night on the boat so far... indeed the thermometer has not gone below 80°, so that is pleasant for me. I expect the Red Sea will be warm also.

I wonder if in my former letter I told you of the wonderful thunder storm we had at Kuweit? We were on the Royal George, and the lightning began about three o'clock in the afternoon.

After sunset it grew more frequent, until by 9 at night it was lightning almost continuously from three sides at once. There was no thunder and only a few minutes rain. The flashes were like a pattern in lace, an intricate net-work stretched across the lower sky. Their colour was a very intense green, and they made a long crackling noise that hardly stopped. In their light you could see everything near by, up to a mile or two, very distinctly, but the distance less well. The three-fold direction of the light caused a most eerie impression of unreality, like lime-light rather, because we are accustomed to see things lit up from one side only by a steady sky. With these flashes one's rigging, and the shape and position of the ships in the harbour seemed all the time flickering and moving. The storm ended in a sudden dry burst of wind which swung our ship (very high built, about 80 feet above the water) right round like a pivot almost on top of a little sloop, the Clio, which had anchored too near us. They had to get up her anchor in a wild hurry (no winch, only a capstan) and dash away: we were within a few feet of over-laying her, and as her masts were below our decks we would have rolled her over and sunk her.

(I wonder if I ever told you about a magnificent storm we had at Carchemish one night Mr. Hogarth and the [Cowleys] were staying with us? It was a very cold week, and after dinner we had all moved round the hearth, on which there was a big fire of olive logs burning: Busrawi had sent in his two musicians at our request. One was an old man, who had been a shepherd all his life. He had a long white beard, and a quiet, weather-beaten face: he played on a pipe about two feet long, that was of a [kind of] reed, but looked like polished brass. Its tone was hoarse, but flute-like, and had a wonderful range: [he goes from high to] very low notes which sound just like the wind dragging over a rocky hill-side, rustling in the dried grass of the valleys. The other is a younger man who plays a two stringed [several words illegible]: he is dark, and thin faced with very deep set eyes. I think he is blind: at any rate he has wound a massive turban and head-cloth over his forehead, so that his face is always in heavy shade... and he generally keeps his eyes shut as he sings.

They had been playing and singing Kurd war-songs and love-songs and dirges for about half an hour when the storm suddenly broke. There was a torrential burst of rain which hissed down in sheets, and rattled over the shingle in our court-yard like the footsteps of a great crowd of men; then there would come a clap of thunder, and immediately after a blue flash of lightning which made our open door and window livid gaps in the pitch-black wall... through which we caught odd glimpses of the sculptures outside shining in the rain and dazzle of light. I remember particularly the seven-foot figure of a helmeted god striding along an inscription towards the doorway:- and the dripping jaws of the two lions of the pedestal which seemed in the alternate glare and shadow of the flashes to be grinning at us through the window. The musicians did not stop, but changed their song for a wild improvisation which kept time with the storm. The pipe shrilled out whenever the thunder pealed and fell down again slow and heavy for the strained silences in between. One did not realise that they were men playing independently: the rhythm seemed so born of the bursts of wind and rain, so made to bind together the elements of the night into one great thunder-song. It all lasted about ten minutes, I suppose, but I think it was the most wonderful time I have had... and when it ended it ended suddenly: there was no quiet dragging away of the storm into distance and insignificance).

There, I have written you a month of letters. I do not know how the Censor will find it in his heart to pass so Gargantuan a bale of manuscript... but I'm afraid he will have to pass it, for there is nothing in it to help our enemies - nor is that a fair description of you. Hereafter I will again be nailed within that office at Cairo -the most interesting place there is till the Near East settles down. I am very pleased though to have had this sight of Mesopotamia in war time. It will be a wonderful country some day, when they regulate the floods, and dig out the irrigation ditches. Yet it will never be a really pleasant country, or a country where Europeans can live a normal life. In these respects, and in the matter of inhabitants, it must yield to the upper river, where we are.

I expect to find letters and papers knee-deep in Cairo when I return. The accumulation of two months business and pleasure will be awful to see - so do not look for immediate news of me.

Would you ask Gillman to make me another pair of brown shoes like the last? Also please ask Arnie to send me out two books by Cunninghame Graham, my Aristophanes, and a Bohn translation of Aristophanes. Latter can probably be bought second-hand from Blackwell. I would like my William of Tyre (Estoire de Eracles) if the volumes are not too heavy for the post - and a Lucretius, if I have one.  If Arnie likes any of these too well to part with let him send something else choice in their stead.

Source: HL 317-27
Checked: jw/
Last revised: 2 January 2006


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