III. tHE LAND OF THE TWO RIVERS
"Within Amara's fateful coils God's fingers touched him and he slept"
Tributes by Presbytery (Kirkcudbrightshire Advertiser, 10 August 1917)
Tributes by Presbytery (Kirkcudbrightshire Advertiser, 10 August 1917)
The Rev John Davis was mobilised in the summer of 1916 and spent a number of weeks training with the Royal Army Medical Corps at Aldershot. He returned to Buittle to occupy the pulpit for the last time on Sunday, 17 September 1916 wearing the uniform of the R.A.M.C. before departing with the 8th Mesopotamian Reinforcements to support the campaign in modern day Iraq, and the renewed push under the command of Lieut-General Sir Stanley Maude to capture Baghdad and frustrate German ambitions in the region. Having arrived at Basra, John was allocated to the River Sick Convoy Unit following the advancing army from Kut to Baghdad, taking wounded troops from the front line down river to the hospitals at Amara and Basra, from where many were transferred onwards to Bombay to recuperate.
John was due to be appointed to a chaplaincy in Mesopotamia, with the rank of Captain, a role for which he would have been ideally qualified, and the necessary papers had been signed and forwarded. Sadly he died of heatstroke on 22 July 1917 before the appointment was finalised.
Many of the letters, postcards and photographs John sent home to his family during his service in Mesopotamia have survived. The following first hand account has been collated from his correspondence together with reports from local papers and contemporary accounts of the campaign.
voyage to the east
John sailed from Southampton on 24 September 1916; the first part of the voyage to Alexandria was made on board the H.M.H.S. Britannic before changing on to the H.M.H.S. Braemar Castle at Lemnos for the second leg. Both ships were torpedoed and lost on their return voyages in the Mediterranean.
“I am sure you would all get somewhat of a shock when you heard I was leaving the homeland for active service. It did come as a surprise to myself - although I thought that they would at least have given me three months training - but the three months are not yet up and already I've been over a month away!” (Letter dated 26 October 1916)
"From a far off land I write to greet you who are so often in my thoughts and prayers. I little thought when I occupied my pulpit on 17th September that ere another Sabbath’s sun had set I should have left the shores of our island home upon an adventure whose end no human eye can see. On that Sunday I obeyed an impulse to say a personal goodbye to each member of the congregation as they left the church, and the warm handclasps and the earnest good wishes that you gave me, have cheered and encouraged me often and often since then.
Our journey eastwards was to our surprise and delight somewhat prolonged, and I’ve met several countrymen who left home since we did who arrived here considerably before us. As a Medical Corps we travelled on Hospital Ships and saw something of the working of these splendid institutions, which bring back from the lands of war our sick and wounded warriors.” (Buittle Parish Magazine, letter received 23 November 1916)
“You will have guessed that the great ship on which we began our voyage was the Britannic and what a ship she is. One could easily have lost oneself aboard her and I would not have liked to have found my way out had we been torpedoed on the way. Indeed one day we had a test alarm and although we all ran like hares for our lifebelts we found that we couldn't get up on deck on account of the closing of the watertight doors and almost all in our ward were reckoned as drowned - I think however that had it been a real attack we would have managed on deck - but we had to go by certain definite ways. Our voyage on the Britannic was very pleasant and contained various surprises...” (Letter dated 26 October 1916)
NAPLES AND THE AEGEAN
“...Our unexpected visit to Naples was one of these and for three days we were at anchor in the beautiful bay and gazed at the picturesque terraced town crowned with the fine castle of St Elmo out over the bay at old Vesuvius always with its cap of cloudy steam and of the distant ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum which in ancient times knew its fiery wrath. Unfortunately we were not permitted to land and great was the "grousing" and grumbling on account of this, but then you see how a few black sheep can spoil a flock. So we had to amuse ourselves with the view and the "bum" boats which swarmed all around and trafficked in fruit and cheap jewellery trinkets.
Leaving Naples we passed Stromboli, unfortunately in the night time but were up in time to see Messina and Etna and then we sped through the Aegean on our way to Madras (Lemnos). Here we stayed a day and a night amid interesting naval surroundings and then transshipped to the H.M.H.S. Braemar Castle - on our way we passed an island which could not fail to thrill the heart of any student of Scripture. I mean that rocky isle where the beloved John suffered exile for the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ. Patmos gave me a surprise. It is not so lonely as I imagined it, but several other islands could be seen from it - but they seemed to be as lonely and barren as itself.” (Letter dated 26 October 1916)
the port of ALEXANDRIA
"After a few days run we reached Alexandria and entered its splendid harbour. In the harbour you could have well imagined yourself in an English seaport town and it was not until you got into the town that its Eastern character was impressed upon you. During our short stay of ten days we saw a good deal of it and its surroundings. One or two of its shopping streets are among the finest I have seen anywhere, but a tour through the native quarters was more intensely interesting and gave me a few eye openers.” (Letter dated 26 October 1916)
“At the very time that you in Buittle were around the Holy Table, I slipped into our church at Alexandria, and it was very easy in thought and imagination to bridge the waters that divided and be with you in the dear weather-beaten church amongst the hills of Buittle; while our prayers for each other were winging their way to the Lord who loves to hear and answer prayer. After the service in the same church that evening our venerable missionary Dr Mackay, and his colleague Mr Short, were surprised to see a humble private step into the vestry and announce himself as a minister of the church, and also a member of the Colonial Committee which guided and controlled the affairs of that particular church. They were much interested and amused, but I was sorry that a hurried departure from Egypt prevented me from accepting Dr Mackay’s invitation to inspect the schools connected with the church.” (Buittle Parish Magazine, letter received 23 November 1916)
passage through the RED SEA to BOMBAY
From Alexandria, John travelled to Suez and through the Red Sea aboard the H.M.H.S. Neuralia, bound for Bombay, before onward transit to the Shatt-el-Arab and the base at Basra.
"We unfortunately missed the Suez Canal but on our railway journey we passed such famous places as Tel El Kabir and Ismailia and at Suez we again embarked this time on the H.M.H.S Neuralia which is now carrying us to Bombay.”
Our passage from the Red Sea was rather monotonous – the heat was intense and we just lay about and slept and read and tried to do as little as we could. When we shall go on to Mesopotamia I do not know - we may or may not stay some time at Bombay. I hope we do, as I should like to see a little Indian life, then I hope that we shall start the return journey soon and that it shall be via Bagdad, Constantinople, Vienna, Berlin and Paris. Wouldn’t that just complete my grand tour?”
Various things have helped to break the monotony of the days at sea when there was nothing to see but a waste of waters – sometimes it was strange birds around the ship and alighting on it – a few small ones looked very like canaries – others larger had crested heads and striped black and white wings – tonight a pelican alighted and was captured by one of the crew. At other times flying fish darting and skimming over the waters took our attention and at night the wonderful play of phosphorescence around the bows of the boat and the gambols of porpoises shining like silver in the luminous glow created a diversion.”
The reason why I mention the bows particularly is that it’s the only part of our ship that is in darkness – as we move along at night a blaze of light – white, red and green – a line of green lights along our decks and a great red cross blazing on our sides amid ships. I must not also forget some of the glorious sunsets one of which I at least shall never forget. It was such a sight of glory that one felt it might well have been the gate of Heaven.” (Letter dated 26 October 1916)
“Ten very enjoyable days were spent in Egypt, and later on a similar number of an even more pleasant character were passed in Bombay. India as represented by the latter city, was a delightful surprise, and to our mind far surpassed anything we have seen in Egypt, and one could but pray that this glorious gem in the crown of Empire might yet shine with dazzling splendour in the crown which a redeemed world shall set upon the head of its Lord and King - Jesus Christ.
So far, opportunity has not been given to us to see anything of the working of our missions in either Egypt or India; but it was interesting to find amongst some wounded Indian soldiers returning from the battlefields of Europe, two native Christians who were Presbyterians; while a Wesleyan chaplain here who had been a missionary in Burmah before the war, told me that at a voluntary service which he conducted in Burmese a few days ago, there were over thirty native Burmese Christians present; while at joint voluntary services conducted by Mr More of Hardgate, Mr Dunnet of Dalkeith and myself, on board our last Hospital Ship, there were several Indians present who were amongst our best listeners, and I shan’t forget the sight of one of them sharing a hymn book with his white comrade, and both joining to sing the praise of their common Lord in the familiar words “How sweet the name of Jesus sounds in a believer’s ear”. These things surely go to show that the Christian leaven is at work, and that although it may be God’s way, as it has often been in the past, that it spread slowly, that still it is spreading; and one could not help feeling that here, in the worship of the world’s Saviour, was to be found that sure meeting ground between the mystic East and the practical West of which poets and philosophers have so long vainly dreamed.” (Buittle Parish Magazine, letter received 23 November 1916)
The Shatt-el-Arab AND Basra
After a short stay John departed Bombay for the Shatt-el-Arab and River Sick Convoy Unit base at Basra. ‘In Mesopotamia’ provides a contemporary account of the journey:
“There is nothing to suggest that you are approaching the gateway of the Garden of Eden when you reach the top of the Persian Gulf, unless the sun be that Flaming Sword which turns every way to keep the way of the Tree of Life...We did not grasp that the great river at whose mouth we lay was called the Shatt-el-Arab and not the Tigris…the approach…is remarkably featureless. After the stark fissured coast hills of Persia and the strip of red Arabian coast that marks Kuweit, the mouth of the river appeared as a yellow line on the horizon.
The sudden sight of the belts of palm trees, the occasional square mud dwellings, and the steamy hot-house look of the banks came as a surprise…our 4,000 ton vessel swept up-stream at a speed of ten knots, with a great wash behind her, and the funnels towering high above the plains...Basra was like coming on a bit of the London Thames from a distance. Lines of big ships appeared suddenly, round the bend of the river, anchored in mid stream…Basra itself lies up a creek, and is invisible from the river. What you see is properly called Ashar, but the two places merge into one another...The creeks round Ashar branch off at right angles to the Shatt-el-Arab at intervals of a few hundred yards…they are broad and richly bordered with palms and pomegranate…Seen in a picture these creeks are idyllic, winding broad, calm and peaceful through the groves.” (In Mesopotamia, Martin Swayne)
John arrived at Basra in late October or early November when the climate was at its most benign and prior to the onset of the unbearable heat of the spring and summer months:
“Towards the end of October the weather became cooler, and in November the nights were chilly…At this season there is a kind of charm about Mesopotamia. Clouds begin to inhabit the skies and the colour effects, especially those of dawn and sunset, are lovely. It is a time of intermediate between the season of heat and the season of floods – a brief time, but one in which the country is at its best. Mosquitoes and sand-flies vanish. A lovely bird, a deep blue and russet, sings in the groves. The blue jay screams and darts through the palm trees.” (In Mesopotamia, Martin Swayne)
Like many of his contemporaries John saw the huge potential of the land in which they found themselves:
“One cannot help but feel that there is a great future before this land – I think that it has possibilities of developing into one of the greatest granaries of our Empire – the soil is of the very finest clay and with scientific investigation I’m convinced that there is an unparalleled future before this ancient land, rivalling perhaps the days when Babylon was the richest empire in the world... It is now very much like the weather of May or October and the sun is much stronger during the day – the night and mornings however are cold.” (Letter dated 18 February 1917)
"We have now reached the scene of our labours and I am expecting to be soon engaged in the work of conveying the sick and wounded down the great river Tigris to the various base hospitals, from whence they in due course are conveyed in large hospital ships to India and the homeland.
Until we are called to join our boat we are encamped a short distance from the river in the midst of the great palm groves that line its banks for hundreds of miles, and which were such a source of profit to the late Turkish Government. Here we live in large reed huts roofed with matting, and wonderfully cool they are in the heat of the day, but they are equally cold at nights. Perhaps owing to the fact that three ministers are living in it, as well as an allusion to its condition, a wag in our company has named our hut “The Wrecktory” (Rectory) – needless to say he was not a Scotsman.” (Buittle Parish Magazine, letter received 23 November 1916)
John was intrigued by the strange sites and peoples he saw and met and would often mention these in letters to his children back home:
“One sees nearly every day along the banks and out on the desert long strings of camels. The camel is called the “ship of the desert” because he is so useful for carrying burdens across the great wider wastes of sand. One day, not long after I came here Mr Moore and I were walking down the road near Ashar and we were talking away to each other and suddenly somewhere above our heads there came a funny kind of noise like a big gr-rum-um-ph. We both jumped and looked up and there was a big, dark camel just behind us with his head just behind ours. You should have seen his driver laughing at us, and I think the camel was laughing too.
Then all over the place we see the cows with the peculiar hump just like the little brass cow that Papa sent you from Bombay. These cows are splendid swimmers and on Christmas Day I saw one take to the river and swim right across, but when it got to our side it couldn’t get out, owing to the high banks, and I thought the poor thing was going to be drowned, but when it saw that it couldn’t get out there it just turned around and swam back again right across to the other side and the river at this spot is twice as wide as the Lagan at the Queen’s Bridge.
Well, we see some very funny things up this big river. You’d all laugh if you saw the little boys and girls racing our boat and calling out “Baksheesh, sahib”, which is their way of begging. Sometimes, some of the soldiers throw an old pair of socks or something in the way of clothing into the river and then you should see the fun. Two or three of the boys plunge into the water and it’s who can swim the fastest to the floating article and the one who gets it catches it in his teeth and swims back to the bank again a proud boy.” (Letter dated 29 December 1916)
“The little girls wear loose robes folded round them, and they run about in bare feet and they are very fond of beads just like the little girls at home, only they wear the beads, great big ones, in a long string from their ears and some of them wear a ring – now guess where – through their nose, and they just love to have whole lots of little glass bangles on their wrists and a nice silver amulet (which they wear above the elbow) and another silver bangle on their ankles. Oh they are just like other little girls all the world over – they are fond of jewellery. But often these little boys and girls have to work very hard...seeing them carrying their little baskets of mud on their heads and then plastering the roofs of the houses with the mud, so as to keep out the heat of the sun, which is very great out here.” (Letter dated 23 April 1917)
RIVER SICK CONVOY UNIT
John served aboard one of twenty four “P” Class stern paddle boats which had been introduced into service between February and April 1916 to help improve the conditions for injured soldiers returning from the front. These had no distinguishing Red Cross marks, in part because this identified the vessels as being unarmed and therefore a safe target. John’s boat was ‘PS 23’ together with two barges, ‘B 270’ and ‘B 272’ which were lashed to either side of the paddle boat, to provide additional accommodation for wounded soldiers.
“Well children dear. Papa is sailing up and down the great river Tigris in a big boat taking poor soldiers who have fallen sick or have got wounded to be attended to in our big hospitals. I wonder, could you guess what time it is that Papa is writing this letter to you? Well, it is just half past one in the night-time and there are still another five long hours before he can go to bed for it’s funny that just now Papa goes to bed in the daytime just when other people are getting up and when they are in bed he is sitting up watching and listening; and every now and then he takes his lantern and walks around all the three big boats and sees that all the poor soldiers are as comfortable as possible. Sometimes, he has to help them up in their blankets, sometimes get a hot water bottle for them, or a hot drink, or some medicine, or a lot of other little things and in between times, he perhaps gets a few minutes to write a letter to Mama or Granny or you.” (Letter dated 29 December 1916)
“We are constantly coming across Brahmins and Hindus and Mohammedans and all the rest of them. Our assistant surgeon for example is an Indian....It is very hard however to arrange things so as to please all the different classes or castes of Indians that we carry on our boats, especially when we are carrying down the poor sick or wounded. Some of them for example, some of the Hindus, won't take food from us, and nor would they take it from any Mohammedan but it must be given them by a Hindu like themselves.
Sometimes when we are coming hard down the river we get a sudden bump against the bank when rounding the corner or bend of the river. One evening we were sitting at dinner - we dine in the evening - and I was sitting on a meat block and the man beside me on the milk box, when bump, we went against the bank and poor Papa and the other man suddenly disappeared below the table. Didn't the others just laugh at us - and what is that I hear - did I hear something like you and Syd and Dorothy laughing, you young rascals - laughing at your Papa - wouldn't I just give you a hiding if I were near you!! But sometimes I get the laugh as I did a few nights ago, when the surgeon was having a game with us and he suddenly disappeared below the table too.” (Letter dated 2nd February 1917)
“The banks of the river at present are thronged with Arabs who have brought their tents and wives and families and vast flocks and herds down to be near the water for drink and also to graze upon the pasture which is just now at its best, although that is not saying much and yet what a fertile land this may yet be. I believe under Brit genius and protection it may yet develop into one of our greatest grain fields and rival, if not outrival, those areas in which it fed the teeming millions of Babylon and Assyria.
With our long journeys now we have had to be much more careful about our rations and some time back we decided to make a Mess Committee responsible for all food, so an election was held and I was at the head of the poll and was therefore duly elected President of the Mess. We have sometimes great fun in arranging the weeks menu which is afterward carefully written out and posted up...One day we couldn’t think of a thing for Friday’s Tiffin or lunch (our light midday meal) so I said why not wait and see, so we put on the menu for that days tiffin “Waytancee”. There was great guessing as to what it was, and the joke was that on Friday morning we happened to get some fish so the ‘Waytancee’ turned out to be Tigris Salmon – a rather bony fish but quite a decent tasting one.” (Letter dated 29 April 1917)
“You will have heard of my work here and what I am now doing. It was fortunate that I have landed so nicely and have such a nice man to work under and with. My duties for the last trip and probably for some time will be to a large extent much like a Chaplain’s without the formalities of that post.” (Letter dated 18 February 1917)
RECApture of kut and occupation of baghdad
John and his unit followed the advancing army as it recaptured Kut, and onto Baghdad in March 1917. His boat was one of the first to reach Baghdad after its capture by British forces and an account of his journey up the Tigris was published by the Kirkcudbrightshire Advertiser under the heading, “A Stewartry Minister in Mesopotamia”
“I confess that when I set out to Mesopotamia it was with some little regret that my part was to be played in a campaign that seemed destined to accomplish so little, but now all that is changed, and we are in splendid spirits as we realise that we have had our little share in one of the big things of the war. After months of patient working, and working with little results to show, we heard that the fall of Kut was imminent, soon we knew that it was true, and then ere we believed it possible we learned that our conquering army had by forced marches, which will take a high place amongst the brilliant feats of the war, reached and captured the ancient Moslem capital, Baghdad, one of the finest gems in the Turkish Imperial crown, and a city greatly coveted by our arch-enemy, Germany – a city, moreover, whose loss ends for the great central power her dream of an eastern empire. While representatives of English, Irish, Scotch and Welsh regiments shared in the glory of the great advance with their Colonial and Indian comrades, it will gratify the hearts of every Scotsman to know that the honour of being the first to enter Baghdad is claimed, by our gallant Black Watch.
“It is, of course, one of our first duties as a Medical Corps to follow up our Army, and soon our boat was plodding up the swift-flowing river through scenes new and unfamiliar to us. In the early dawn we passed the famous town of Kut, a place sadly disappointing considering the prominent part it has played in the campaign, standing forlorn and deserted amongst its shattered palms, and one could not but think of the many gallant young lives that had there fallen asleep, alas! too soon, but who dare deny “having finished the work that was given them to do.” (Kirkcudbrightshire Advertiser, published 27 July 1917)
Passing in close proximity to ancient Babylon, the Garden of Eden and other sites from the Old Testament and antiquity was clearly of huge personal interest and an opportunity John would never have had, had he not been posted to Mesopotamia. On occasion he was clearly keen to seize the opportunity that had been presented to him.
It makes one envious to be so near to places like Babylon and not be permitted to go and see at least where they stood, but I certainly cannot complain, for I have already seen more of the East than I ever dreamt I would see and much of it has been of absorbing interest. Every day one sees scenes and people and customs which recall and illustrate and open up scriptural passages and incidents.” (Letter dated 18 February 1917)
“Soon after this we passed near to the site of ancient Babylon, and we felt a throb of sympathy with the poor Jewish exiles, who once sat by these waters and wept as they thought of the far-off homeland.” (Kirkcudbrightshire Advertiser, published 27 July 1917)
“Not long after this, excitement grew as we saw there was a chance of us going as far as Baghdad itself. Soon we passed the famous arch of Ctesiphon, a fine example of ancient Persian architecture, and which once formed the entrance gate to the palace of the Persian kings. Another little spell of sailing and we got our first glimpse of the domes and minarets of the famous city of “The Arabian Nights”. Easily and far away the most beautiful city of Mesopotamia that we had seen, were our thoughts as we passed up the river lined on each side by beautiful houses, built up to the very water’s edge, and in many cases apparently rising out of the water itself – framed in a dark background by the graceful date palms.
It was on St. Patrick’s Day that we drew alongside the landing stage, and a Saturday, and soon a large crowd of Bagdadis, including many richly and gaily clad Jews and Jewesses, probably on their way to or from the synagogue services, had gathered to see us, one of the first boats that had gone up into the town since the occupation a few days before, and from the friendly demeanour of the crowd we could easily gather that there was little regret amongst them that their lot was no longer under the Star and Crescent – that emblem of cruelty and tyranny, but was now under the Union Jack – the flag of freedom and equity which was proudly waving from the topmost masts. Unfortunately we had no time for sight-seeing – duty was our first call - and soon we were embarking many of the wounded heroes of the advance. It wasn’t long until I realised that I was in a Scottish atmosphere, words which would trip any but a son of the moor and the heather were flying on all sides, and to my joy I found that we had placed in our charge the heroes of Baghdad – the gallant Black Watch. They came to us fresh from the battlefield with the blood scarce dry upon their clothes, but never have we carried a brighter, more high-spirited, or easily pleased set of men, and Scotia’s sons were high in favour with us all. Amongst them was one whom they all claimed to have been the first into the Moslem capital, Lance-Corporal Kelso, from that famous town whose name even yet burn.” (Kirkcudbrightshire Advertiser, published 27 July 1917)
thoughts of home
Following the occupation of Baghdad, day to day life became somewhat monotonous, in a large part owing to the intense Mesopotamian heat which imposed a forced inertia on the troops, who were left with time to reflect and think of loved ones back home:
“Just beside where we stopped occasionally during the winter there was a nice house where a gentleman and lady lived with their little children and sometimes I used to see them come out in the cool evenings and the lady had a long white coat and the boys had green jerseys and little short pants, and the little girl had nice curls like my little girl and oh, it made me think of your darling Mama and you three dear children and just long to be with you again. However that day will come soon, I hope and then what grand times we’ll have together.” (Letter dated 23 April 1917)
“I have just finished reading all your letters since I left home and do you know that it is now just a day short of three months since your last letter I have received was written. It is No 19. Dated 30th January? Just fancy it is such an awful gap of time. For the first time we have been very unfortunate in the way of letters and pay. Several times we have been on our way down and have had to turn back and plod wearily up stream again, and then in addition, the last time we were down at the base we heard that several mails were considerably delayed. I do hope that we shall get down this time without any delay or turning back.” (Letter dated 29 April 1917)
Writing to his wife on their wedding anniversary, John had the time to reflect on why he chose to enlist and the consequences of his decision on his family:
“Beloved and best of wives, I need scarcely ask you do you remember what day this is and what it commemorates in our life story...The past year has proved one of the darkest in our lives because of this dread war we have been separated far from each other; and yet dear heart I know you would not have had it otherwise; from the day that you saw that I felt it to be my duty to go, I'm glad to say you never stood in my way, and although I know what it cost you to let me go, and leave you alone with your heavy burden of care and responsibility, still you effaced self for me and country and sweetheart it has made me prouder of you than ever and made me love you better if that were possible. And I think you will have realised this, if you did not fully realise it then that I made a wise choice in going when I did, leading by example as I should, before example was lost in the maze of compulsion. It has made my mind much easier darling, to know that you with your sound judgement and good common sense and your unfailing sympathy, are behind me and that you will have seen to and will continue to see that all things affecting our welfare and the welfare of my beloved work are kept as right as can be in my absence. As far as finances are concerned I am hopeful that in spite of the terribly increased cost of living you should be alright.” (Letter dated 29 April 1917)
Following John’s departure, his wife and three children left the Manse for what would be the last time and returned to stay with Madge's family in Belfast.
By April the temperature had increased significantly and continued to rise. A contemporary account gives an impression of the conditions John would have experienced:
“A typical hot day begins with the dawn that comes as a sudden hot yellow behind the motionless palms...Inside the mosquito net you see various gorged, little insects, struggling to get out of the meshing through which they passed so easily when they were slim and hungry. The hot beam of the sun picks out your tent, and the mercury goes up steadily. At five you are bathed in perspiration as you lie in bed. It has been in the neighbourhood of 90 degrees throughout the night…The business of getting up is one of infinite weariness. There is nothing fresh in the morning feeling. At eight the mercury is probably 100 degrees. At times, as you dress after a tepid bath, it is necessary to sit down and take a rest. Your vesture is simple – a thin shirt, open at the collar, and a pair of shorts, stockings and shoes…During the day your feelings do not correspond to the height of the mercury, for after breakfast a certain amount of energy possesses you and the mornings work becomes possible. But, after a couple of hours, in the neighbourhood of eleven, when it may be anything from 110-120 degrees in the shade, a kind of enervation sets in…After midday, the world is a blinding glare and the intake of air seems to burn the lungs. A comparative stillness descends on the scene. On the plain, activities cease. Through the double canvas roofing of a tent, the sun beats down like a giant with a leaden glove. The temperature in the wards increases. At the worst moments, you feel distinctly that it would be possible, by giving way to something that escapes definition, to go off your head.” (In Mesopotamia, Martin Swayne)
“It does get very very hot during the day here and you couldn’t touch iron that had been lying in the sun and even the water in the tanks gets warm, and one perspires and perspires all day long but then we change our things often and get them washed and we bath in a big bath as often as we can and so keep ourselves fit.” (Letter dated 23 April 1917)
“So far however I’ve kept splendidly and have stood the peculiar climate changes of the winter very well indeed. I’ve had nothing worse than a headache since I came to Mesopotamia and I hope that very satisfactory condition of things will continue.
Lately we have had rather lazy times, at least much longer periods of comparative idleness than of work and it has been very monotonous and we would almost welcome some change. Of course in another way the leisure is welcome too, because we are now beginning to feel the heat and already we have had several very warm days well over 100 degrees in the shade when you had no inclination but to lie and sleep, even reading proved too much in this arid part of the day, while work brought the perspiration in streams.
“If you send a parcel during summer months be sure that it contains a good sized tin of some of those lemonade powders – Ayntons is no good, but the glass lemonade is very good and I’m told the Cambridge also. Cooling drinks are what’ll we want most in the hot days and if you send sweets the lime juice tablets will be just the thing or the thirst quenchers.” (Letter dated 29 April 1917)
Sadly in early July, John was taken ill, suffering from heatstroke and taken to the No 2 British General Hospital, Amara. A contemporary account of the suffering caused by heatstroke is described in “In Mesopotamia”:
"I do not know of any other malady so dramatic or so painful to witness as heatstroke with the exception perhaps of acute cholera. It is something that belongs to Mesopotamia in a peculiar sense, in that it seems to express in invisible and concentrated form the silent hostility of the country which was noticed by the ancients. For Mesopotamia welcomes no man…it was during the afternoon and evening that heatstroke occurred in the main, when the humidity of the air began to go up. At about five with the temperature falling and the humidity of the air increasing, a period of intense discomfort set in. Perspiration was so profuse that clothes became wringing wet like bathing suits even if you were sitting still. A kind of air hunger ensued. The few birds in the groves sat with their beaks wide open. It was then that the ambulance wagons began to roll in with their burden of heatstroke cases and continued until after sunset. It is a malady, which as I have said, is dramatic and painful to witness.” (In Mesopotamia, Martin Swayne)
Temperatures in July 1917 spiked and as the table shows, so too did the incidence of heatstroke. “The number of casualties resulting from the effects of heat is worthy of note. The majority of cases occurred between 14th and 28th July 1917 during the most trying fortnight the force had yet experienced, the temperature reaching 125 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade on the 20th of the month.” (A Medical History of the Great War)
Word reached Buittle that their minister was in hospital:
"The chairman said that the two spots uppermost in their minds that day were the hospital at Amara, Mesopotamia, and the Manse at Buittle, and he knew he could speak for all present when he said they joined from the bottom of their hearts in the earnest prayer of Mr Henderson that they might again listen to the earnest words of Mr Davis in the pulpit and see his cheery presence amongst them. Their sincere feeling was with Mrs Davis and all at the Manse in their time of anxiety.” (Kirkcudbrightshire Advertiser, 3 August 1917)
John Davis died at Amara on 22 July 1917. The Chaplain who was with John at the end, wrote the following letter to the congregation and parishioners:
"I desire to send you – the Kirk Session and Congregation – and Parishioners of Buittle some brief message of sympathy with you in the recent heavy loss you have sustained by the death, on active service here, of your minister, the Rev. Davis, who was serving in the ranks of the R.A.M.C. and in that capacity doing devoted and sterling work in the alleviation of suffering and in ministering to the sick and wounded. He passed away quietly at 7.45pm on the evening of Sunday July 22nd. I last saw him that same day at 11am; he was very weak, but calm and contented: his thoughts seemed to be at home then, rather than here, and his last words to me were “everything was going to be alright and that we were all in God’s hands”.
I had not known Mr Davis previously till he came into hospital in Amara – but I visited him almost every day during the brief fortnight that he was ill and got to know him well and like him much. He was very brave and patient and bore his sickness with soldier like courage and endurance. His was a splendid example: he gave up much to come out here, and now he has laid down life itself. To you who are left to mourn his loss I can only offer my most profound sympathy. Your minister was a man to be proud of and his memory is well worth cherishing.” (Letter from Andrew MacFarland, Senior Chaplain dated 25 July 1917)
tributes by presbytery
A meeting of the Presbytery of Kirkcudbright was held at Castle Douglas shortly after the news of the Rev John Davis’ death was received, and was subsequently reported in the Kirkudbrightshire Advertiser:
“Mr Davis had been struck down in all his splendid vigour, when all his talents were at the best. The news of his illness and death came with very startling effect upon them all because it was a thing they never looked for... He had indeed made a great sacrifice, but such was the spirit of the man that he could not, as he said himself, ask others to do what he was not prepared to do himself. He (Mr Nichol) recollected Mr Davis saying to him shortly before he left, "I often think what is to become with my wife and family if I never should return...Mrs Davis's sorrow was too great and deep almost to be touched upon. All her brightest hopes in life had been shattered, her home would be broken up, she had lost the companionship and support of a husband and a father's care for her children. She needed not only the Presbytery's sympathy but their prayers, and she would have both, he was sure, in the most and unstinted measure. He need not to say more; their hearts were all very full of sorrow for those who had been bereaved.
They all knew that he was not obliged to go on that service, but he felt that he could not refuse the call of the country when men were wanted. It was characteristic of him that he should even press to be admitted to the service, and he thought it was characteristic of him also that the branch of service which he chose was that branch where the duty was not to destroy men's lives but to save them.” (Kirkudbrightshire Advertiser, 10 August 1917)