Sunday, November 11, 2012

Remembrance day - Thomas Henry Ward

British troops on the march in the dessert c 1916
(from the National Army Museum)
Today, November 11, is Remembrance Day, so it seems fitting to say something about the war-time experience of our grandfather, Thomas Henry Ward. Though he survived the war of 1914-1918 and went on to marry Grandma, his army service must have remained a significant part of his future life and is worth recording and remembering.

Unfortunately, without knowing what regiment he was in, it's difficult to trace his actual records. Many service records from the First World War were destroyed in a fire after the war, and those that are available (mostly medal cards) often don't provide enough information to distinguish one Thomas Ward from another.

However, I do know from Dad that Granddad was in India and Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) during the war. A bit of internet research on sites such as The Long Long Trail suggests that this narrows down the possibilities.

Only one British Army unit, the 13th (Western) Division, was involved in the campaign in Mesopotamia. As far as I can tell, the battalions that made up this Division never spent time in India. However most of the troops in 'Mespot' came from India as part of the Indian Expeditionary Force "D". The majority were Indian-born members of the British Indian Army, but some were from British Army regiments who had previously been stationed in India as part of the Territorial Forces.
British troops marching in Mesopotamia
(from Library of Congress, author unknown)

It seems that many of the Territorial Forces who were in India at the beginning of the war were replaced by battalions of less experienced volunteers, many of them older men, in order to free up the regular army men for service elsewhere. As the war went on, some of these units were themselves recruited to fight in Mesopotamia and were replaced by other Territorial regiments from England. (See the entry from "Alex" on this genealogy forum).

Given that Thomas Henry would have been close to 32 years old when the war began, he may well have been one of these 'older men' who were sent to India and then recruited for service in Mesopotamia. The other possibility is that he simply had contact with Indian troops while serving in Mesopotamia as part of the 13th (Western) Division. Either way, it's hard to imagine how a man who had spent all his life in small English mill towns would have adjusted to conditions in Mesopotamia.

60 pounder gun firing in Mesopotamia
By Varges Ariel [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The parallels between the war in Mesopotamia in 1915-1918 and the war in Iraq in this century are many. In 1914 the Ottoman Empire, an ally of Germany, had declared a Holy War on the Allies (Britain, France and Russia). Britain sent troops to Mesopotamia in 1915 to secure their oil supply line from the Anglo Persian Oil Company, and to maintain British Army prestige among Indian Muslims who might be tempted to join the jihad. Over 600,000 Indians as well as British army troops eventually served in the Mesopotamian campaign.

After securing the port of Basra, which had some strategic value, the army was ordered to march on up the Tigris and take Baghdad, which had no real value to Britain.  In December 1915 the British-Indian garrison at Kut-al-amara came under seige and it proved impossible to relieve the 8,000 or so men stationed there, who were taken captive in April 1916. Eventually Baghdad was captured, but at great cost in lives. The conditions in which the British and Indian troops found themselves were truly appalling - searing heat and dust in summer, bitter cold, flooding and mud in winter, along with insects and vermin, disease and dehydration, poor supplies and inadequate medical support.
Hospital Ship 1 on the Tigris c 1916
By E. E. Jones [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

These  diaries written by a doctor who served in Mesopotamia and a soldier transferred from the Territorial Forces in India give some insights into what it was like. Around 92,000 British and Indian soldiers died (including Robert Palmer, the soldier who wrote the diary), most of them from infections and disease.

Fortunately Thomas Henry returned to England with no lasting physical injuries, but who knows what mental scars he and others like him carried.

(More pictures and information can be found at

UPDATE; see At last - a regiment for Thomas Henry Ward

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