Arthur's War

By Christine Hewitt

The story of a Sittingbourne man's war taken from his notebook.

My Grandfather Arthur Lewis was born on 12th September, 1884 into an ordinary working class family - but he was not an ordinary man. Although millions of men died during the 1914-18 war, Arthur eventually came back - and brought with him his small leatherbound notebook in which he had recorded the daily lives of the young men who had joined up with him, many of whom would never return.

As a young man, Arthur had eventually settled into employment in the local paper mill in his home town and had begun to take an interest in electricity - an innovation which was rapidly changing the face of the world. He had been married for two years when war broke out. Arthur was quick to enlist so that he could join the regiment of his choice - The Royal Engineers - and use his electrical skills, but before he could do this he had to acquire another skill - he had to learn to ride and look after a horse. Most people today, when asked about the First World War automatically think of The Somme, Ypres or Paschendale, and the bloody massacre of tens of thousands of men as they bombarded each other from mud-filled trenches; but many more thousands died of disease and malnutrition in the remote corners of the world. Arthur was bound for The Dardanelles, Africa, Mesopotamia, India and The Khyber Pass.

Sapper Lewis left England in August 1915. He was already used to hard work and poor food during his training in England, but this was nothing compared to what was to come. About 6000 men, horses and stores were packed into a ship at Devonport - a good target for German U-Boats. As the cliffs of England faded into the distance, Arthur felt a lump in his throat wondering where he was going and when he would see his home again. The two torpedo boats which escorted them from Blighty left on the following day - 6000 men with only one 6" gun for protection! Rumours soon circulated that they were in the Mediterranean on their way to Malta and as the heat became unbearable, this appeared to be true. Arthur joked that if it hadn't been dark below decks he would never have been able to eat the food, and at Malta he parted with his last tuppence (1p) on some grapes and tomatoes to supplement his diet.

When the ship reached the Aegean Sea, there were plenty of Allied warships around and lots of troopships arriving, bringing Australian troops as well as British. Arthur was able to swim here - his first proper wash since leaving home. He joined the queue for pay and was given ten shillings (50p) and he bought a pint of beer - again a first since leaving England.

Arthur and his mates finally went ashore under cover of a bombardment and encountered many dead and wounded soldiers - amongst them men from regiments that they recognised. There was a shortage of tents and only three blankets between four men, despite the very cold nights. Meals consisted of "bully beef" and biscuits and a change of clothing became impossible as all spare kit had been sent on to Alexandria. Arthur was very pleased when he was able to buy a newspaper which was only a fortnight old. During the whole war his happiest moments were when he received news of home. During November there was an outbreak of dysentry in camp and many troops were hospitalised. The weather became very severe with sand storms and heavy rains which prompted the stores to issue mackintoshes and scarves. The hospitals began to fill again with men coming down frorn the front with frost bite and there were many fatalities. At the end of the year, with communications in place, the Engineers sailed on to Alexandria.

After a few weeks they travelled through the hot dry desert to a new camp near the Suez Canal, where they were attached to GHQ and where a new railway was being built. Rations were very short and their spare kit was delayed again, so the extremes of temperature were almost unbearable. Arthur records seeing Indian Lancers riding through and what fine soldiers they were. The constant worry was an attack from the Turks who were occupying Asia Minor across the Suez Canal. Days became very busy as they rode the lines checking the telegraph wires. The men longed for news of how the war was progressing. The only relief from the monotony was letters and parcels from home, news of loved ones and parcels of tobacco and treats that could be bartered for extra rations in the towns. By April 1916, job done, it was time to move on and the troops marched on to Suez to board ship again. By the time their boat had reached the Red Sea, the engines had broken down and had to be repaired and a man had been lost overboard. Arthur reported sightings of "sharks" and flying fish and later even "a great whale". The boat passed through the Gulf of Oman and into the Persian Gulf where everyone was transferred to another ship for the journey up the River Tigris to Base Camp. Here conditions were very bad with no proper food, no money to pay the men, no cigarettes and worst of all - no soap! The flies and mosquitoes were very bad but supplies of nets for protection were few and far between. The men had not been paid for five weeks and so couldn't supplement their poor diet with extra food from the villages.

The water at this camp was very bad and soon cholera broke out. Those who could, moved up country with their horses to establish communications, but everyone was very much on edge expecting a rebellion from the local Arabs. By the time reinforcements arrived from home, vast numbers of troops were sick with cholera, dysentry and malaria and Arthur had experienced his first "plague of locusts". Food seemed mainly to consist of tinned pineapples and the men began to look like scarecrows with their ribs sticking out from their thin bodies. More Indian and Gurka troops were posted in as the British soldiers found the conditions very difficult and many were dying.

By the time they had been away from home for about a year, there were only 16 of the original 61 personnel that had left with Arthur. One lad in Arthur's batallion tried to injure himself so that he could go home. A typical day's menu consisted of oatmeal for breakfast, with just tea at midday and stew in the evening and on this meagre diet, the men were expected to work a gruelling 12 hour day and fight off tropical diseases!

By November it was time to move on again, following the River Euphrates along terrible roads where the horsedrawn wagons kept turning over and where the wagon in front couldn't be seen because of the dust. By December they were in the thick of a bombardment near Armara, in the Persian Hills and Arthur began work on the lines of communication from Headquarters to the Aerodrome, under the bombing from Turkish aeroplanes.

New Year 1917 saw a push forward by the Allied troops and there was intense fighting with the loss of many men around Al Kut. Two thousand Turkish prisoners were taken during one assault and despite the shortages, cigarettes and rations were shared out by the British troops amongst their half starved enemies. Arthur began to look forward to the advance on Bagdad and the liberating troops were welcomed with open arms, especially by the Armenians who had expected to be massacred by the Turks. But the promised extra rations were not forthcoming as the whole city had been looted before the Turks left. After a short respite it was on and up again to Baqubah. "It has been terrible, the dust and sand. Drinking water very scarce and the work very hard." In mid-June Arthur and some friends left Bagdad en route for India and some well earned leave. On 4th July they arrived in Bombay and travelled on to Poona where they met up with some old buddies and enjoyed a good meal and a visit to the cinema. But by 31st July, they were back in Bagdad ready for the next advance, again taking another 2000 prisoners at a place called Ar Ramadi.


590x494 38KB

Arthur Lewis in India

In November, Bagdad was evacuated due to an out break of cholera and everyone was hurriedly innoculated. Winter arrived with a vengeance and the heavy rains turned the desert to a sea of mud. Christmas Day 1917 was Arthur's worst experience since joining up - working until midnight in the mud digging out wagons and with nothing to eat the whole day. The Engineers spent the next two months in the desert about 100 miles from Bagdad and arrived back during an aerial bombardment. After March things started to quieten down considerably, which was a great relief to everyone as many were falling sick with malaria, including Arthur. The summer proceeded fairly peacefully. By 4th October 1918, Arthur complained that his notebook was almost full. "One would not think you could endure such hardship,."

On 12th November 1918, an entry in the notebook records that "There seems to be an end to this terrible war" and by 18th December that some of the boys were leaving for home. During January 1919, those men with the longest service and those over 40 were in the second wave to leave and Arthur was praying for his own demob. When news came of a move down to Basra, Arthur was expecting to go home and he finally completed his diary.

The rest of Arthur's story comes secondhand via his daughter Kitty, my mother. Family history says that Arthur's wife Maud should have gone to his work place and completed forms which said he was needed in his previous employment. Why she didn't we will never know, but instead of the White Cliffs of Dover Arthur found himself in the Himalayas protecting the Empire at the Khyber Pass and didn't reach home until October, 1919. But Arthur considered himself amongst the lucky ones - he DID reach home - unlike his brother Sid* (listed as missing in action in France) and his brother-in-law Percy* who was blown up by his own gun. And with Arthur came the notebook - a family treasure and a record of an extraordinary man's survival during one of the world's most traumatic periods of history.

Christine Hewitt 2001

* Sidney Thomas Lewis/* Percy Downing (see roll of honour)

For most of his life Arthur worked as an electrican in the paper mills.
Arthur died 7th of December 1963 and is buried in Sittingbourne cemetery.