Killed in action in Mesopotamia on 9th March 1917 aged 21.
I have been passed on some letters by a friend of mine and this being the centennial week of the outbreak of the First World War, with her mother’s king permission, I am relating this tiny piece of very personal war history here.
Memorial: Private James Craig
Location: Basra Memorial, Iraq
Date of Death: 9th March 1917
Firstly, I think that some context around these three letters is necessary for the better understanding of the story.
The letters (or rather, with the exception of one original, copies of the letters (the originals are now housed in the document archives of the Imperial War Museum)) were passed on to me by Gillian Morris. Her Grandmother Mrs Anne (Annie) Frisby (neé Craig) was the sister of the soldier central to the story, James Craig (the author of one of the letters from Mesopotamia in November 1916) and cousin of Benny Hobson (author of the remaining two letters and carrier of devistating news).
Whilst in this week of sombre reflection much of the media attention have focused on the war on the Western Front, for it was the fighting in these areas of Europe that gives us our most commonly held perception of The Great War, a world of trenches, mud, blood and poppies. By contrast, this story reinforces the notion that this really was a world war as the events that unfold in these letters occurred far away in Mesopotamia (in modern day Iraq) and Bangalore in India.
James Craig and Benny Hobson were two Bolton lads who at the time when theses letters were penned were both serving in the 6th Battalion of the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment, which in turn formed part of the Mesopotamia Expeditionary Force. The 6th (Service) Battalion were a New Army (or Kitcheners Army) formation established in Preston in August 1914. Prior to fighting on the outskirts of Baghdad in March 1917, the battalion had previously seen action at Anzac Cove as part of the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign.
Private Craig (seated second from the right in the second row) with fellow soldiers of the
Loyal North Lancashire Regiment
The first letter is a short communication from James to his sister Polly (Mary) Craig to reassure her and the family that he ‘is still living’ and seemingly bored rigid with the mundane day to day existence that he is experiencing. Whether this was a means of allaying the fears of loved ones at home, starved as they were of information from the front lines, or is a true reflection of a quite period between operations is hard to say, although a characteristic of front line service were long periods of uneventful labour interspersed with short periods of extreme danger.
Throughout these letters, replacement of words with '??????' indicate that the original texts have become illegible.
Pt J Craig 22899
6th Batt L. NL Regt
Mesopotamia Expeditionary Force
c/o Indian Office
Just a line to let you know that I am still living, but I have not very much to tell you as every day is alike. I have had a letter from Gert? and it cheers me up to read about home, it was the first letter for months as you will know that the mail is very broke. I should like to get a letter from you as I am always thinking of you and the good times we have had at home, but I never get down-hearted. This morning I was mark fit and I shall be moving from here shortly so I might meet Benny as I have never heard about him. Well Polly dear, I will close now hoping that you and all at home are in the best of health as I am in the ???? Remember me to mother.
Your loving brother Jim C
PS: I have just received 2 letters – one from Gorge and one from our Norman and tell him I will answer his letter at the first opportunity. Jim.
The fortunes of Mesopotamia Expeditionary Force (M.E.F.), and thus the 6th Loyal North Lancashire Regiment, in this theatre of war were mixed. Facing Turkish forces of the Ottoman Army (or ‘Johnny Turk’ as he was to the Allied soldiers), the M.E.F. had suffered at the Seige of Kut (Kut-al-Amara) which ended in April 1916 with more than 13,000 British and colonial soldiers being taken captive.
With the appointment of a new commander General Sir Frederick Maude came a new fighting impetuous. Efforts to reinforce the M.E.F. were mirrored by a parallel weakening of the opposing Ottoman 6th Army, which found itself desperately short of reinforcements. Secret orders handed down to Maude from the Field Marshal Sir Willian Robert Robertson, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, not to advance on Baghdad, were reversed with the realisation that, if combined with a Russian success in taking Mosul, Turkish influence in Mesopotamia could be neutralised.
Lieutenant General Sir Frederick Stanley Maude KCB, CMG, DSO
24 June 1864 – 18 November 1917
Maude’s offensive to take Baghdad was launched on 13th December 1916. The M.E.F. advanced up both banks of the Tigris river, overpowering Ottoman fortified positions as they went. At one point in the advance Maude’s forces were able of outmanoeuvre the Turks by switching to the opposite bank of the river. During this march to Baghdad, Kut was retaken on 24th February 1917. At this juncture, Maude’s forces took some time to recuperate before the march on Baghdad resumed on 5th March. The Ottoman Sixth Army, under the command of the capable Khalil Pasha, elected to make a defensive stand at the confluence of the Diyala and the Tigris rivers, some 35 miles south of Baghdad. The British and Indian troops had reached the Diyala river on 8th March 1917.
These two young relatives of the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment participated on an assault of the Ottoman positions on 9th March at the Diyala (the river or part of it being described as a canal in the letter). Resistance to the Allied assault was ferocious, as described graphically in the letter from Benny Hobson. It was during this assault I believe that cousin James Craig was killed by a Turkish sniper’s bullet.
After the action near the Diyala, Maude shifted his main force north of the river and Khalil Pasha mirrored this troop movement with his forces on the opposite bank, leaving only one regiment to hold the existing Diyala positions. This regiment were overwhelmed by the British on 10th March and on hearing that his men had been crushed, Pasha ordered his Sixth Army north to Baghdad itself.
The Ottoman authorities ordered the evacuation of Baghdad at 8pm on the evening of 10th March, but the game was up for the Ottoman forces. The British entered Baghdad without further opposition on 11th March 1917.
General Maude enters Bagdad, leading a column of British troops
11th March 1917
It was on the 12th March, most likely from within Baghdad itself, that Benny Hobson wrote the first of his two letters in this small collection. This was the first opportunity after the heat of battle that this young soldier could relay the tragic events of the previous few days and in doing so break the news that James had fallen.
A week later, General Maude issued the Proclamation of Baghdad, which included the line, "Our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators".
22878 Pte. B. Hobson
C Coy Batt, L of L Regt
Mesopotamia Expeditionary Force
Dear Cousin Norman
I hardly know how to write to you yet I suppose I must come to the point and although it seems terribly hard to tell you the worse and that is of your Dear brother’s death in action on the night of the 9th. I was not with him at this time but not far away but from information gathered from the commander of his platoon it seems he was at this time on sentry and met his death at the hands of a sniper who got him in the head. His end Dear Cousin I believe was quite short and painless as he fell to the ground without murmuring. I did not hear of this till the day following and then my Coy or what remained of it were given orders to get back across the river. So I will give you an idea of what we had to face and the glorious deeds which some day sooner or later will come to light. Our division have as you will already know been on the heels of the retreating Turks since the fall of Kut when our marching days began and we had got within 12 miles of Bagdad when our way was suddenly stopped by a canal which had to be bridged by some means or other and so material for a Pontoon was soon at hand but Johnnie’s artillery fire soon put an end to this idea, so it was decided upon that our Batt should proceed across in boats 10 men to each but this was cancelled after half of us had got over and then the band began to play just try to imagine a weak force like us trying to hold a very much larger force. Yet God only knows we held on like grim death after every hour brought depletion in our ranks men fell wounded and killed, our rifles fairly blazed and became too hot to handle and ammunition began to run out and to save as much as possible we had to only fire in case of extreme necessity, once the turks began to bomb us and we were obliged to retreat. To put it in words as deep as I can it was Hell, but some day Dear Cousin, if God spares me I will tell you it all, I do not know how I escaped death as pals around me fell and I had my helmet knocked off by a piece of Turkish shell, help cam just as day broke on the 10th and under the devastating fire of our own artillery, the Turks began to retire many coming in to our lines and giving themselves up. These two nights I shall never forget this trying ordeal and now I mourn the loss of one who could not have been more to me if he had been my brother. You must excuse this letter Dear Cousin if it be by any means to sadden or in any sense too cruel. I did not know how to break this sad news to you and yet I thought you ought to know, I have not write to my Dear Aunt as I know she will be in a way so Dear Norman I leave it to you to break this news to her in a way you will think best with the one consolation to the loss of one so dear that he died with his face to the enemy in one of the pluckiest engagements ever known every inch a soldier and a man. I have made enquiries about his personal belongings but find out that his sergeant got them all, that was himself wounded as I intended could I have got them posting them to you a my first opportunity but perhaps he may have the kindness to return them to you.
I hope you will take my deepest sympathy in this sad time and trust with me that your dear departed Brother my good old chum has joined the favoured throng and now dwells in Heaven with our loved ones only gone before. Now I will close as I do not feel as I can write any more at present. Hoping you will always to bear up.
Your sad and lonely Cousin
Will you kindly break the news to Greta.
Benny remained in Mesopotamia it appears until he was sent for an extended period of leave to Bangalore, India, arriving on 21st June 1918. In a letter dated 27th June 1918, he describes the recreational opportunities for British troops on leave in the area. How alien and exotic this land must have seemed the the family back home in Bolton.
The letter finishes touchingly as Benny describes his on going efforts to locate the final resting place of cousin Jim.
22878 Pte. B. Hobson
C Coy Batt, L of L Regt
Mesopotamia Expeditionary Force
Just a few lines hoping you and all at home are keeping in the best of health at present. No doubt by the post-mark you will notice I am in India where I am spending a month’s leave having arrived at Bombay last Thursday the 21st and after a three-day railway journey arrived here at the Leave-Camp. This place – Bangalore – is known as the Garden of India and is accepted as being one of the healthiest places in this country and suitable to British troops as the climate resembles a decent ‘Blighty’ summer and vegetation grows abundantly. Bangalore is divided into two parts – the Canton-ment and the City. The former is composed mainly of camps for British troops and shops, municipal buildings and English Residents. There are some lovely walks the only pity is Emily’s not here. Parks are just like England – one named Cubbon Park I visited yesterday on entering one is met by a most imposing monument of Queen Victoria. She has for her body-guard four small cannon used by our troops in the days of the Indian Mutiny –each gun having a good supply of cannon balls, as I looked I thought what harmless things they would look stored side by side with our present-day improvements in big guns and high-explosive shells. There is also a Bandstand and museum, this unfortunately was closed but I hope to see it later on, avenues abound where one can rest neath the shade of these tall trees and enjoy the coolness given thereby. We are fairly well catered for as regards amusement – there are five picture houses placed within bounds three of these I have already been to and can state that their quality is quite good and I should say equal to most shows in Bolton, the piano of course provides the music and that’s a treat to some of us for there not many pianos in Mespot except in garrisoned places and I can assure you the North Lancs don’t see much of them places unless sickness or wounds take them there. Food is very cheap here owing to I expect that nearly all the foodstuffs are grown and produced in India herself and of course native labour is very cheap. That reminds me, women do all the hard work I ????? would you ???????? tricky or work on the railway navving rather hard work you will admit. There are few white people here but the majority are half castes neither black nor white of course are pretty well-to-do and live in big houses, dress smartly and have all the necessary swank so usual in civil life. “Archie” saunters along in white or cream pants light tweed coat and “kady” together with low shoes and railway socks these with of course ???? running round commandeering one of some big junction – Maude is daintily attired in white shoes and socks likewise, her hat neatly trimmed with – here I shall have to stop as I have clean forgotten the name, but anyhow it finishes up with two long strings at the back recalling that time-expired fashion – Follow-me-lads. We are well catered for in the eating-line and of course this is one of the main items as we took Baden Powell’s motto – “pull your belt up another hole” rather too much to heart in the last stunt when rations fail to put in appearance for two or three days, so you see we’ve got to make up for the last time and I hope, buy another belt. We can get a good supper of ???? eggs with bread. ?????? bananas equal in English money to a tanner, eggs ???? or tea can be brought ready boiled at 6 for 5d fruit is fairly cheap bananas 4d a dozen so you see if a fellow doesn’t make up for what he’s lost it’s entirely his own fault. How would you like a monkey for a pet they knock about here wild or one can buy a youngster for a very small fee, they are quite amusing in their antics and can be trained almost for anything – one I saw yesterday had to be fitted and looked very smart in service dress – his master had made him a tunic and trousers to match and of course a service cap, he also wore 3 gold stripes on the left sleeve and look quite an old time ?????., no doubt we shall have quite a good supply of monkeys in Mespot when we go back. Enclosed you will find a little book dealing with peoples manners and customs of Mespot which no doubt will be interesting to you, unfortunately, I have had to cut it down as I cannot get an envelope big enough so you must please overlook this little difficulty. I expect you will have received my last letter where I stated about the ?????????????????? so I will give you the results and information. I gleaned from the meeting firstly that a tablet bearing all the names of officers that made that famous crossing should be unveiled at Preston Garrison Church then a monument enclosed and on the spot where so many of our lads fell including my dear old chum your dear brother should be erected, the cost to be defrayed by the Reg’t every man from the Commanding Officer downwards would be asked to give one-day’s pay, who would not give this for so heroic lads done on that never-to-be-forgotten occasion. I trust Dear Cousin that in this you will find some little consolation although it does not help to bring or regain that which was lost, still you see the men are not forgotten by their ?????? chums and I daresay this to you will mean more than words can explain. I have not yet been near that sacred spot as to find your Dear Brother’s resting place, but my enquiries as to the information you asked have yet been of little avail no doubt for the speedy advance made for the bid for Baghdad. But I promise you my enquiries will still continue and perhaps ‘ere long I shall be able to give you the information you so much desire. I trust my Dear Aunt is keeping well and that all my cousins are in the best of health. Will you please give them my very best regards and tell them to keep their hearts up. God claimed there last one. He called him and I know because of our close relationship when on this earth he always kept straight, played the game and now has won the prize. I do not want to open an old wound, forgive me if my letter should appear so my role as comforter may not be or seem to be genuine, but in all sincerity it comes from the heart. My thoughts go back to what might have been as I look round and see boys just a few who left Felixstowe with us, here after a period of hard graft believe me it has been ???, we gather for an holiday to recuperate so ???? read yet the one ???? would have liked to see and wondered with is not here, but I surely know even if that chain is broken that he who once walked and enjoyed life on this earth is now looking down upon me ever smiling enlisted in God’s Own. Now I will close trusting you will find some little comfort in my rough epistle and I hope God will grant to you all that joy and peace which I cannot give. “The Peace that passeth all UNDERSTANDING”.
Your Sincere Cousin
Cubbon Park, Bangalore, with the statue of Queen Victoria seen by Private Benny Hobson whilst on leave from Mesopotamia
In fact, Private James Craig No. 22877 has no final resting place, no known grave. As described in Benny's letter, the speed of the final advance on Baghdad meant that the remains of thousands of British and Indian troops were not recovered from the battlefield.
James Craig is commemorated at the Basra Memorial, now sited in Nasiriyah (having been relocated from its original position at the Naval Dock at Maquil, 8 kilometers north of Basra.
Location of the Basra Memorial commemorating the 40,500 men of the Mesopotamia campaign of 1914-1921 with no known grave.
Baghdad and Kut are marked to the north west of the memorial site.
A contemporary photograph of the Basra memorial in its original location of the main quay of the naval dockyard at Maqil, on the west bank of the Shatt-al-Arab.
The name 'J. Craig' can be seen on the panel second from bottom on the right hand column.
James Craig's name appears on panel 28 of the memorial.
List of names as they appear on panel 28 of the Basra Memorial
(Craig J. appears eighth in the left hand column).
Plan of the Basra Memorial showing panel positions
Grave Registration Report listing the details of Private James Craig 22877
The story as it appeared in the local Bolton press some years ago
For the record Private James Craig No. 22877 was 21 years of age when he was killed.