Veteran Mr. Fred Goff recalls his experiences in Mesopotamia during WW1
Videotaped interview, conducted at the residential care home where Mr. Goff was living, by John Goto:
1.33 – Fred Goff (FG) describes volunteering for the 4th Dorsetshire Territorials in the spring of 1914, and being assigned to C Company. He says that he joined because it was the thing to do at the time; all the young men were doing it. He didn’t think there was going to be a war. They were sent to Sling Plantation on Salisbury Plain for basic training. During the second week the war broke out.
3.20 – They struck camp and marched to Salisbury, where people brought out tea and cakes for them in front of the cathedral. Then by train they went to Devonport to guard coastal defences and relieve regular troops. They were billeted at Penley Fort, Devon. Within days the Special Reserve was called up. The Reserves relieved C Company, which was sent back to Salisbury Plain to continue training. They stayed there until 9th October when they sailed from Southampton for India. Their training had amounted to a couple of months.
6.00 - Mr Goff lists the other regiments that sailed with them in eight ships escorted by one cruiser. He mentions Kitchener being drowned some time later when the ‘Hampshire’ was sunk off Norway.
FG sailed in the ‘Assaye’, which was a P&O liner (shows picture of it from newspaper cutting). The convoy docked at Bombay. They were under the command of the Indian Army once they landed. Lord Chelmsford, who later became Viceroy after Harding retired, was put in command and they were posted to Indore in central India. FG suggests that because they were Territorials they were better received than the regulars. The Maharajah invited them to Christmas dinner in the gardens of his palace, with a band playing.
15.00 - Mr Goff talks about the Indian Army and his high regard for Sikh gunners. He was in India for just over twelve months. From Karachi they went to Basra, then on to Nasiriyah.
Eight companies made up one division at the time, although later it was reduced to four. A battalion, Mr Goff recalls, was comprised of about eight hundred men. In Mesopotamia this was depleted by widespread sickness caused by dysentery, malaria, typhoid and cholera. Many more soldiers died of disease than were killed in action. His battalion shrunk to almost nothing at one time, until replacement troops arrived.
20.00 - When they arrived in Mesopotamia, Townsend was already besieged at Kut. After the Allied retreat from the Dardanelles, the Turks brought more troops down towards Baghdad. Attempts to relieve Townsend were thwarted when the Turks flooded the plains around Nasiriyah. Townsend surrendered in April 1916. FG’s Company eventually stopped just south of Baghdad for some months in the late summer of 1916.
23.30 - Mr Goff talks about the advantages of travelling north by barge on the Tigris river, as the Euphrates was too shallow to accommodate river transport. When they had to march, however, they found the ground quite firm. Some extra British troops had arrived from the Dardanelles. It seems Mr. Goff’s company was advancing towards Baghdad along the Euphrates, whilst the main force went up the Tigris. The Turks were pushed back to the north of Baghdad.
28.00 - (Mr. Goff retraces his Company’s movements with the use of a map). From Baghdad they went across to Fallujah and eventually to Ramadi.
29.20 - It was while taking Ramadi that they lost nearly half the battalion (still looking at the map). They then went on to Khan Baghdadi and eventually advanced to Hit, which was as far north as they went.
30.20 – General Maude was by that time in command. After FG’s regiment had taken Ramadi, Maude flew up to see them. Mr. Goff was on sentry duty when he landed. FG obviously didn’t think much of Maude as a person.
32.00 - They came across a party of Armenians north of Ramadi. FG reports that the Turks were persecuting the Armenians at that time. The refugees were lucky to find the British there, as a few days earlier they would have come across the Turks. There was one Englishman amongst the Armenians, who had escaped from Kut and travelled with them. He was in rags. They printed his story and put it on the notice boards, and he was sent back down the line.
34.00 – Recapping, FG says that he was in Mesopotamia from February 1916 to February 1919.
37.00 - Speaking of daily life, he says they were always kept busy, transporting materials amongst other tasks. They ate goat, and during his time there he never saw a cow and seldom a bird. They sometimes had sugar for their tea, but only infrequently condensed milk. They had a lot of jam from New Zealand, and corned mutton from Australia, but no corned beef. Australian biscuits were better than the British ones, which took some chewing. They drank water, which was sometimes like mud, straight from the river when on the move. They could not protect themselves against the risks involved. When in camp, river water was treated with chlorine, which he says was a hit and miss affair - sometimes too much was added, and at others too little.
39.00 - They only wore shirts, shorts and putties because of the heat. After October it became cold at night though remained hot by day. In mid summer the ground became like an oven, so much so that they found it difficult to lie down at night.
40.00 – The terrain was barren. When they got the other side of Fallujah, however, it became hillier. Along the rivers the Arabs irrigated the land using donkeys and pulleys to draw the water into troughs.
(At this point a piano can be heard coming from an upper room in the care home, playing ‘Tonight’ from West Side Story).
41.30 – They arrived at Hit in the middle of the night, and noticed a terrible smell. In the morning they could see it was caused by sulphur springs. Amongst the rocks they found bitumen, which the soldiers used as fuel for fires. It was around here that oil was later extracted, though FG didn’t see any oil wells himself. In fact he didn’t see any motorised transport until after they captured Ramadi, which he recalls as having been seventy-three years ago yesterday, on the seventeenth of September (This seems to have been a minor lapse in Mr. Goff’s otherwise remarkable memory - the dates of the battle where in fact 27th - 29th September 1917.)
42.46 – That’s when they lost most of their men, on the seventeenth. When he looked back the next day from the captured Turkish trenches, he wondered how any of them had got up there.
43.20 – Ramadi, he explains, was a small place close to the river. Before the war someone had started a project to take floodwater from the Euphrates to a large salt lake, which was three or four miles behind the town.
Near the lake they discovered that the ground was white and soft with salt deposits, which would stick to their boots. This had to be cleaned off frequently otherwise it ‘felt as if you were walking on a couple of half tennis balls’. The sun glared strongly off the white surface.
44.10 – The pre-war plan had been to run water from the floodplain to the lake, and in times of draught to run it back to the fields. At a place called Jackson’s House there was a small narrow gauge railway with V-shaped tipcarts. The Turks had turned the carts onto their sides with slits cut along the bottom, and built them into their trenches. Through the slits they could run machine-guns from side to side. Sandbags were built up above their trenches. The ground the British troops had to advance up was ‘as bear as a beggar’s ass’. FG again says that he doesn’t know how any of them managed to make it up there. (He then draws the way in which the Turks had adapted the tipcarts.)
46.10 – The Turks had the river behind them. He comments on how beautifully constructed the Turkish trenches were, much better than the British ones. The Turks had been in the region a long time, getting right down as far as Palestine - it was all part of the Ottoman Empire, along with Jordon and Saudi Arabia. Allenby went up through Palestine driving the Turks back. Once the Turks had gone, independent countries were formed, which was the start of Iraq.
47.27 – Returning to the battle, FG recalls that they had arrived in the area a few days beforehand and gone to the lake, which was out of range of Turkish fire.
The Turkish positions were on slightly higher ground. There was a dip someway in front of them that offered cover to the advancing British, but the last four or five hundred yards before the Turkish trenches was open terrain. The engagement began at nine or ten o’clock in the morning.
The Dorsetshires had about eight hundred troops when they started the advance. On the left flank were the Ghurkhas, though the Dorsets caught the main force of the Turkish fire. The Allies also had a cavalry battalion with them, possibly the 14th Hussars, which eventually got around the back of the Turkish lines. It was then that the Turks surrender. Three thousand prisoners were taken.
(The pianist is now playing Cole Porter’s ‘True Love’)
50.22 – FG describes the advance, and seeing people falling around him. One man he knew caught a burst of machine gun bullets in the chest. FG and another man were stretcher-bearers on that day. They picked up the wounded and took them to a first aid post a little further back, where there was a doctor and a couple of orderlies. There were a lot of dead there.
On the front line they found one of their men with a bullet wound to the neck. A Ghurkha doctor came up and plugged him up, and they took him back to the first aid post. The doctor there asked who had applied the dressing. Mr. Goff comments ruefully that ‘Our fellow wasn’t walking round up there under fire like the Ghurkha doctor’. The Ghurkha got the DSO and FG felt that he deserved it. Several years later he met the wounded man at a reunion dinner. He was alright but had lost his voice. If the Ghurkha doctor hadn’t treated him he would have died.
52.31 – The advance stopped short of the Turkish trenches over night, but in the morning the Turks surrendered. The soldiers had slept in open ground.
The British didn’t have much artillery support; the Turks had more. The shells would burst in the air, showering shrapnel down. Having said that, he reflects that the bombardments were nowhere near as bad as soldiers on the Western Front experienced.
53.40 – When they got to Khan Baghdadi, FG was put in charge of his company’s first line transport, using mules. He describes how the mules were loaded and the type of goods they carried. At times they were sent up ahead of the main force with supplies. Though shelled, they felt relatively safe sheltering in dips in the terrain. If a shell landed amongst the advancing soldiers, a cloud of dust was kicked up. ‘They caught it, poor buggers’ they would say and when the dust cleared they were all dead. The Turkish artillery was very accurate but their shells were no good, and were nearly all duds.
56.50 - When water was needed they had to go down to the river with the mules to collect it. From the other side the Turks fired machine guns at them on one occasion, but a couple of artillery shells were fired back and there was no more trouble from them.
He describes how a shell bust above them, killing one of the officers. FG acknowledges that there was always a possibility of being wounded or killed, but says he didn’t think about it too much. ‘What will be will be’ was his attitude.
The day before the Ramadi attack, they were briefed on the plan by a sergeant Weedon. He was wearing a pith helmet. He showed them a 303 bullet he kept in one of the ventilation slots around the inside of the helmet. It was for himself, he explained, in case he was taken prisoner. Mr Goff came across him the next day dead, and the bullet that killed him had gone straight through the brass case of the cartridge in his hat.
59.30 – He said that the rumours of Turkish ill treatment of prisoners were mostly untrue. Escaped prisoners, however, did report that they weren’t given much food. He asserts again that more British and Indian troops died of disease than battle wounds.
At Ramadi they buried their dead and made a temporary memorial in the shape of an obelisk. He speculates that the graves have probably not been looked after as in France. Another difficulty in creating an orderly cemetery was that soldiers were often buried where they fell, so their bodies were scattered.
1.01.10 – Asked how morale was he says it was pretty good, given that they were always cussing and moaning. FG had three birthdays in Mesopotamia: his twentieth, twenty-first and twenty-second. He was a private nearly all the way through. After Ramadi, he adds with a chuckle, he was made a lance corporal.
Mail from home arrived erratically, with three or four batches turning up at once sometimes. Letters from his mother and father often took three months to reach him. His letters to them were censored. The troops were offered postcards to send home with printed messages, ‘I’m alright’, ‘I’m well’, and told to cross out the phrases they didn’t want.
1.03.50 – Sometimes when they stopped for a while a few of the men would put on a show, with a couple of comedians. He made friends in the army, but reflects that there aren’t many of them left now. He went to a few reunions after the war. He was still a lifelong member of the Dorsetshire Overseas Association and had a card somewhere. (FG becomes quiet and reflective).
1.05.48 – He came back on the ‘City of Marseilles’ and they landed at Liverpool in 1919, on the same day as the Grand National. They marched to the railway station and ended up back at Sling Plantation, which had become a demob centre. When they got there it was covered in snow and they only had their thin desert clothes.
When he was demobbed he caught a train back to Dorchester. His mother and younger brother met him at the station. He remembered that when he went indoors he thought the walls were going to knock him down, so used was he to expansive spaces.
1.08.00 - He had a little money the army had given him so he walked around for a few weeks, and then met his old employer who asked him to rejoin his carpentry firm. After a few months there a bricklayer friend told him about a job going at Harrison Hospital, so he started working at the hospital doing maintenance in May 1919, and stayed until 1951.
1.09.20 – He briefly returns to talking about Townsend, whom he suggests didn’t initially meet much resistance from the Turks on his march north.
(‘Kiss Me Honey, Honey Kiss Me’ is being played on the piano)
FG says that when they were on the march the Arab population kept their distance. He never had any problem with the Turkish prisoners, and felt no animosity towards them.
1.15.00 - The relationship between officers and men was good in his Company. One of the nicest young officers, Captain Bob Matthews, came from around Gillingham where his family had a brewery. He was the only officer left who had come out with them from Britain. He was killed at Ramadi.
(‘On the Sunny Side of the Street’ can be heard coming from the upper floor).
1.17.00 – He reflects that being on stretcher duty at Ramadi exposed him a little less to Turkish fire, as after picking up a casualty they took them back to the first aid post. Nevertheless, there were bullets whizzing over this head the whole time. Despite the high number of casualties, he felt there was no real alternative to frontal assaults. Ramadi was one of the last big battles of the campaign.
1.20.00 – After Ramadi, about twenty ‘Tin Lizzies’ arrived to transport them north to cut off a Turkish outpost. They were issued with rations and two hundred rounds each, and driven through the night. When they arrived at their destination the Turks had gone. By then they had eaten all their rations, he smilingly reminisces, and as punishment weren’t given any more for a few days.
1.22.20 – Mr Goff says that during his service in Mesopotamia he was only once given leave. In 1917 he was sent for a month’s break to India. He went to Bombay and then Calcutta. There was a music hall company in Calcutta called the Badman Hopper Company, which he went to a few times and also a musical comedy.
1.26.00 - When they were at Nazaria there was a highly infectious outbreak of cholera. Sick men didn’t last much longer than a day.
1.27.20 – Mr. Goff was born in Chard in Somerset, but his father moved the family to Dorchester when he found work there as a foreman building the new post office. Later he worked on the construction of a Roman Catholic Church in the town.
The family lived in Duke’s Avenue, Dorchester, and FG played around St George’s Church, Fordington Green, when he was about ten years old. As children they roamed all over the place, and often went to Fordington Fields where there were big allotments. There used to be a toll road there, and they could still read the tariffs on the old tollgate. There was a small tollhouse and just opposite it, with a high brick wall all around, was Thomas Hardy’s house, known as Max Gate. Hardy was well known by then. The kids used to climb up onto the wall to look into the house, which wasn’t easy as there were trees around it.
1.33.00 – The video ends with some shots of Mr. Goff’s room in the care home. On the wall is a photograph of St. George’s Church, and another of Mr. Goff with his wife and mother-in-law in the 1920’s, walking along a seaside promenade.
(The pianist upstairs is playing ‘Oh What a Beautiful Morning’).
John Goto 10.2013