The Tree of Knowledge

Iraq, 1916.

It had taken them a month, just to reach Basra; after the evacuation from Helles in the Dardanelles, the troop ship had paused at Port Said before progressing down the Suez Canal, and passing Aden and then the Straits of Hormuz. Grenville’s battalion were being sent to relieve the siege of Kut, three hundred miles upriver from Basra, where General Townshend was trapped with ten thousand men and the Turks dug in all around him. The long journey had been a respite from battle, but although Grenville had set them a routine of drills, sports and concerts, the confinement on board ship dragged the men down. Grenville thought it gave them too much time to think.

Not long after Port Said, Sergeant Andrews had punished Private Morton for insubordination. Field Punishment Number 1 consisted of standing upright for two hours with hands and feet tied to a post – Andrews had improvised as best he could with the deck rails. Morton bore the punishment in silence, reed-straight, staring ahead of him, his face contorted rhythmically by a nervous tic.

‘What’s the matter with that man, Sergeant Andrews?’ Grenville paced along the deck in his tropical uniform, thumbs thrust in his brown leather belt.

‘Sir,’ Andrews stood to attention. ‘Failed to address superior correctly, and grimacing, sir.’

‘Private Morton isn’t it?’ Grenville’s grey moustache drooped as he regarded Morton from a distance.

‘Sir,’ said Andrews.

‘He fought well at Gallipoli, charged a trench full of Turks after most of his platoon were blown up, bayoneted a captain in the face’.

‘Sir,’ insisted Sergeant Andrews, ‘he’s always staring into space, his kit isn’t up to scratch, muttering all the time – he needs to snap out of it, or he’ll be no good to any man.’

‘Mentioned in dispatches,’ said Grenville.

‘Sir,’ said Andrews, resolutely.

Grenville allowed himself a moment of anguish to recollect the failure of Gallipoli. The floors of the trenches made soft by all the dead buried underneath, the dead buried sideways into the walls of the trenches, under a moving black carpet of flies, their hands would somehow work their way out, gesturing stiffly. The flooding rains washing the bloated, unburied, dead into the trenches. Grenville felt that his uniform still stank of death.

A soldier on guard on the canal bank spotted Morton, and called out to him. They exchanged greetings.

‘Where are you heading?’

‘Mesop.’

‘Poor devil,’ came the reply. Morton’s face contorted in response.

‘Hey! You there, pipe down!’ Andrews started up to reproach Morton, but Grenville stopped him with a gesture. Mesopotamia was known to be one of the most evil places on earth, with the most malarial air, the most choleraic water, and the most infernal climate of any place in the world.

After the Straits of Hormuz, Grenville habitually sought out the Padre for company, and they would stand at the port bow rail, watching the opalescent wavelets of the Persian Gulf, and the coast hills slipping by behind a strip of red shore. Their transport dropped anchor within sight of the sand bar at the mouth of the Shatt-al-Arab, a yellow line on the horizon intersected by the distant sails of fishing boats.

Transshipping to a river steamer took nearly a day in a sudden squall, and then they crossed over the bar into the broad river. They passed Abadan, where the pipelines of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company reached the big circular tanks of the oil refinery beside the shore. Then they saw the military hospital at Mohammerah, and on the west bank of the Shatt-al-Arab, the remains of Ottoman trenches. Three sunken hulks remained from the Turks’ attempt to defend the river.

‘Look at that,’ said Grenville, ‘where we drove the Ottomans out of Basra in ’14. It has to be feasible to take Baghdad. Our boys are ten times better than those barbarians.’

‘Yet the Ottoman Empire is full of Biblical sites,’ said the Padre. ‘Ephesus, Tarsus, Antioch.’ He was fascinated by the history of the ancients, and the names of places that had been in the Old Testament. He started to talk excitedly of the legend that the garden of Eden had been at Kurnah, upriver from Basra, where the Tigris and the Euphrates flowed in to the Shatt-al-Arab.

‘Four rivers ran from Eden: the Pishon, encompassing Havilah, the Gihon, encompassing Ethiopia, the Hiddekel, to the east of Assyria, – that would have to be the Tigris – and the Euphrates,’ said the Padre, allowing his round spectacles to slip down his sweaty nose as he quoted from the Book of Genesis. The Tree of Knowledge, he added, still stood in the town of Kurnah.

‘Thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof, thou shalt surely die,’ replied Grenville, and his smile faded and he fell silent, looking out to port, where the water extended into lakes and marshes, with the reed huts of the Marsh Arabs on low islands in the channel. He wanted a smoke, badly, but it was Lent; he had given up tobacco.

Grenville did not want to think about The Tree of Knowledge. He remembered when he and Emmeline had first moved to Aylton Hall, before the war.  He had retired from the Army after twenty years of service, and his ageing, childless uncle had wanted him to inherit the house and the baronetcy. Through Grenville, the ancient family name would be preserved, and the proud coat of arms carved above the arch of the gatehouse would remain a stone record of his pedigree.

It had been a time of great peace for them, a time to be together, and watch their children grow up. He remembered a time in early autumn, when the countryside around Aylton was gilded with the ripeness of harvest. The air was still and fragrant and warm, and wasps hovered in the lush orchard, basking in the heat reflected from the red brick walls. The children were down by the river, racing twigs. He was smoking on the terrace, and Emmeline had picked him a crimson apple, holding it out on the palm of her hand, smiling, like Eve, red-lipped, with dark, luminous eyes. The sun lit the gold locket at her throat, her lace collar, and her glossy dark hair. He leant forward to take the apple, and kept her hand, and kissed the fingertips.

‘Is that from the Tree of Knowledge?’ he smiled, releasing her, and biting into the fruit. It was juicy, but bitter. He wished then that he had not spoken, for there came in to his mind a vision of a bare plain, of thick grey mud. His battalion was advancing, and there were shouts to change direction, to attack the centre of the enemy’s line. There was no time to issue orders or arrange signals, no direction was clear in the featureless terrain. Advance where the bullets are thickest, came the cry, as they veered instantly to the left, frantically charging their magazines and fixing their bayonets on the move. Then the shouts were drowned out by shell bursts, one after another, with thick smoke and a rain of deadly shrapnel. There was a smell of blood and gunpowder. There was no cover, and no covering fire, and all around, his men were falling, their screams inaudible in the racket of the explosions.  He knew that he was far from home, and that he would never see his wife again, or his children. Yet he went on, yelling at his men to follow. He was sweating, and his mind seemed to slip, he was falling, falling.

‘Grenville?’ He heard Emmeline’s voice. ‘Dearest?’ The vision faded, and he felt a sense of overwhelming relief. His heartbeat gathered pace. He looked down at the browning apple core that he held in his fingers, and could not remember having eaten.

‘For a moment then, I was cast out of Eden,’ he had joked. But he knew it was only a fancy, that it could not be true; he was retired.

A year later, England had declared war on Germany, and he had been recalled to the regiment.

‘But darling, you’re nearly fifty,’ Emmeline had objected. He had told her that he had plenty of experience, it would be as before, he would take it steadily as he had at Ladysmith, it was his duty. And that it would all be over soon enough.

Time passed slowly on the boat. The creeks below Basra had been beautiful, with mirror-calm water perfectly reflecting the lush palms and pomegranates that grew from their banks. Slim canoes glided in them, and children splashed in the shallows, while black robed women drew water in brass vessels, which they carried on their heads. In places, the groves of palms stretched for perhaps a mile inland, festooned with vines, creating a paradise in which brightly coloured birds fluttered.  Grenville imagined then that Kurnah would indeed be a tranquil Eden, a fragrant cornucopia of God’s creatures and every kind of flower in the world.

But at Basra, the wide dark river was full of boats. On one bank was a chaotic, overcrowded mass of low white buildings, reed huts, tents and crates of stores, with a crowd of shouting Arabs thronging the shore. There were no proper wharves, so that launches, barges and primitive dugouts and dhows ferried goods and passengers from the shore to the lines of ships anchored in midstream. There were hospital ships, cargo vessels, transports, warships, monitors, tugs, riverboats and innumerable small craft. A flotilla of riverboats from around the world, from the Nile, the Irawaddy, and the Thames, had been requisitioned to supply the front line. Casualties were being moved from the British General Hospital to the large hospital ships bound for Bombay. There were many Indian soldiers, their slender frames wasted by illness and suffering into gaunt skeletons.

Grenville’s transport dropped anchor, but there was no time to land, the orders for the reinforcements were to proceed immediately up river, and so they transshipped again to a smaller steamer, the Mejidieh, with barges attached on either side.

The officers’ quarters on the Mejidieh were hardly worthy of the name, and Grenville wrinkled his nose at the marshy smell, stepping on to the bridge deck, watching Cowley as he shouted orders in Arabic to the native boatmen who tagged along beside the convoy, carrying in their dhows whatever supplies and pack animals could not be crammed into the steamer and its barges. In that fierce, guttural language, even the simplest statement sounded like a deadly curse. Lieutenant Commander Cowley, RNVR, had lived in Mesopotamia most of his life, and knew how to navigate the Tigris. He had the traditional white mutton-chop whiskers and a tanned and leathery skin.

‘Sorry about the damned stink, old boy, haven’t had time to put it to rights,’ said Cowley. ‘Damned business after we lost at Ctesiphon, river of wounded, no boats to put ’em in, ordered to prepare for 500 and we got five times that, easily.’

‘We were told the casualties had been evacuated and comfortably disposed,’ Grenville frowned.

Cowley snorted. ‘Got ’em out, mostly, but not in hospital ships, they were in Lajj for three days, lying in agony all over the ground, desperate, starving, thirsty, we were towing livestock barges to get them out. Filth everywhere, they all got dysentery, boats were awash with it, all over the deck, covered in flies. They were bloody dying all over the place. Took eighteen days to get back to Basra.  Wish I didn’t have to remember it.’

‘Surely there must be sufficient boats?’ asked Grenville.

‘Whole bloody show being run from India, not even Bombay. Simla! Haven’t got a damn clue, don’t want to spend money, they think just sending more and more reinforcements will sort it all out. What’s the point of sending all these fellers, if can’t get  ’em up river to where they’re needed, can’t supply them properly, can’t get them back when they’re wounded?’ Cowley glared at the flat, empty landscape. ‘They don’t understand the Tigris – they look at the map and see a river from Basra to Baghdad, and no roads. Where there’s a will, there’s a way, and all that damn blather.’ He fixed his glare briefly on Grenville, who wondered if he was included in Cowley’s views on the heedlessness of the officer class. ‘Beyond Kurnah, if you’ve got your barges alongside, most places are too bloody narrow for two transports side by side. One moors up, the other one passes. And from Kut to Baghdad, it’s too bloody shallow for mostly all of this. Try running aground with Turks taking a pop at you.’

As they travelled upstream from Basra, the fringing palms became sparser and the land even flatter and more vacant. At times small groups of poor huts could be seen, but otherwise it all seemed desolate. It was hard to imagine that this country was worth fighting over, once the Abadan oil terminal had been secured. The Mejidieh chugged along at a fast walking pace, and in places, women trotted along the bank with baskets of eggs, haggling prices with the soldiers.

The river was congested with boat traffic, and to Grenville, their progress seemed to be getting slower and slower. He doubted they would be in time to assist General Townsend, but he kept this to himself, not wishing to undermine the men’s morale.

It began to rain, turning the desert to pale grey mud. With the end of winter came mosquitoes and stinging flies, and disease. The Mejidieh steamed on between the river’s greasy banks.

When they finally got to Kurnah, it was a flyblown place on a great brown stretch of the river, with a line of dirty buildings leading away from the waterside. There was a scrubby area of date palms under an overcast sky.  Private Morton, when told that it was the Garden of Eden, said, with a sigh, that Adam and Eve were lucky to have been sent away. Sergeant Andrews told him to shut up.

A solitary twisted tree, with drab grey foliage, jutted out from the riverbank, and the barges moored up to it. Its gnarled roots, partly exposed in the riverbank, looked like a nest of snakes. Its bark had been eroded by mooring lines, and a large section of the branches was dead. An Arab, when they asked him, shouted back that it was Adam’s tree. Then he spat into the river, and a pale froth of saliva floated away on the current.

The Tree of Knowledge, reflected Grenville, wishing he had not given up tobacco. But there was none to be had, anyway. Their supplies were decaying: when a crate of cigarettes was opened it contained only dust and mildew. They were all drinking chlorinated water, which made awful tea, and tasted diabolical with whisky.

At dusk, Grenville sat in the officers’ quarters with the Padre. He had been brooding that day with his doubts, not wishing them to be public. There was no-one else about, and he spoke frankly.

‘I feel I am leading these men to disaster again,’ he said quietly. ‘Gallipoli was bad enough. Now this campaign will fail because it takes too long going up and down this wretched river. We can’t transport enough supplies. If men are wounded up river it will take a fortnight to get them back to the hospitals at Basra. Yet it is my duty, what else can I do?’

The Padre was silent for a time, then he spoke, pushing his spectacles up his nose and meeting Grenville’s eyes through the circular lenses.

‘Honour, pride, sacrifice, nobility, men need these things. You cannot lead them other than in to the field of battle, anything else would be shameful. Do not take away their faith, or you rob them of that which is dearer than life itself.’

‘My own death,’ Grenville said, ‘I have foreseen. I am ready for that. But others, young men like Morton, their deaths grieve me.’

‘Morton will survive,’ said the Padre, ‘his sheer desperation will keep him alive.’

Grenville set his face forward, there was no route of return.

In England, the end of winter brought heavy rain. It swept across the old stone face of Aylton Hall, as if the entire world were weeping. Southwesterly gales pushed water into the cracks of the mortar that had been mixed before the Tudors came to power. Weather had already eroded the fine carving on the coat of arms. With a stone groan and grind, the ancient shield crumbled, and avalanched down the face of the wall, splashing into a puddle of water on the gravel in front of the house.

In the gulch across the muddy meadow, the cocoa-brown river slid past the trees, sucking and gurgling at their roots. The air was damp and smelled of wild garlic, of the soft earth, of algae and moss. On the riverbank, the snowdrops were over, and their grey-green leaves were like peppermint fringing the chocolate banks. The bluebells were budding under the twisted apple trees, but Grenville would never see them again.

The grand salon was chilly and deserted, a dust sheet thrown over the grand piano, and there were no servants to make up the fire. It smelled of damp. Emmeline read, and re-read, the telegram that she held with shaking fingers, staring at the deepest regrets, scrawled in pencil.

 

This story is available in my anthology:
Link to Amazon.co.uk

© M Wallis 2020

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