Herbert Crook: Lost in the desert

This blog, of all the Crook boys stories, troubles me the most. It troubles me because I know so little about Herbert Crook (again we have no picture of him), but more so because of all the tales of these boys, his end was probably the worst of all.

If you’ve read my other blogs on the exploits of Sidney and Harry Crook, and their mother Mary, you’ll be familiar with the family tree. Like me, you probably also don’t understand how a farm boy from Norfolk ended up with the moniker of Herbert Julius Crook. A magnificent name!

Equally, I don’t understand how Herbert ended up in the army in Mesopotamia (Iraq) in the aftermath of the Great War. Following the death of his brother Sid, and with Harry and Fred on the other side of the world in Canada (with Harry recovering from an extremely near miss at Passchendaele), I can only imagine their mothers thoughts. Maybe life was tough enough for Herbert that the army seemed a good career choice, or an escape from a tough home environment. Either way, in the summer of 1920, Private 7253119 Herbert Crook, Royal Army Medical Corps, found himself in the baking heat of Mesopotamia. We have no record of how or when he came to enlist. He was 19 years old.

By way of a brief history, Mesopotamia had been a battleground for the British during the war, and much bitter fighting against the Ottoman Turkish army had taken place. After an armistice with the Turks 6th army on 31st October 1918, at Mosul, British rule was slowly established with a view of maintaining control until the nation could stand on its own feet (I won’t mention the geopolitics of oil!). A peacekeeping force was in place, although much depleted from wartime strength. Politically, a decision was made to superimpose the systems employed in the civil service over generations in India to maintain government over the Sunni and Shia Arab population. It wasn’t to be a quick fix. After Turkish rule ended, Political Officers were put in place to maintain administration, including taxation, and generally keep order. The short version is that the often warring Arab factions were suitably irritated enough by British rule after the lax and corrupt Turkish rule, that in early summer 1920 they united and rebelled. The British, and their inexperienced local political leaders, were caught off guard.

1920’s Mesopotamia

As today, after the Treaty of Versailles on June 28th 1919, there were tensions in the region. Bolshevik forces were active in Persia (Iran) and British forces were stretched by indecision.

A series of skirmishes and incidents took place throughout the summer of 1920 and increasing civil disobedience took hold. This is where a certain amount of guesswork comes into play, as I simply have nothing to substantiate how Herbert met his death; but one particular event stands out.

The railway at Kifl, south of Baghdad, was attacked and the local political officer requested assistance from the garrison at Hillah to restore order. On July 23rd a military force was sent to assist.

This column, now known as the ‘Manchester Column’, contained:

35th Scinde Horse – 2 squadrons.
39th Battery Royal Field Artillery – 2 sections.
2nd Battalion Manchester Regiment – 3 companies.
1/32nd Sikh Pioneers – 1 company.
24th Combined Field Ambulance – 1 section. In addition, a transport train brought the total strength to around a thousand.

The column commander was Brevet-Lieutenant Colonel R.N. Hardcastle DSO. At this point, I make it clear that I have no definitive confirmation that Herbert was among the Field Ambulance company.

Before leaving Hillah, Lieutenant Colonel Hardcastle had been under the impression that he was the advance guard of a larger force that would follow his column, and his orders were: “If opposed by large hostile forces, you will avoid becoming so involved as to necessitate reinforcements, and should occasion arise you will fall back on the position you now occupy.”

He was unaware that there was no larger force, and his column was alone in increasingly hostile territory.

By 24th July, the column reached the Rustumiya Canal at about 1235 hours. The Manchester Regiment soldiers were so exhausted by the extreme heat that the Medical Officer recommended a 24-hour rest period and camp was struck. At 1745 a force of some 3000 insurgents approached the camp. The insurgents advanced at some points to within 150 yards from the camp and fire was exchanged. Real concerns that the column would be surrounded if it remained in place were raised, and the decision to withdraw was made. One company of the Manchesters acted as advanced guard whilst the other two companies marched on the flanks. The transport train followed the first company, followed by the guns escorted by the Sikh Pioneers; the two squadrons of Scinde Horse acted as rearguard. The column headed back towards Hillah after 8pm, as per orders not to engage.

The Manchester Column Camp

It was not long before chaos ensued, as the retreating column in part panicked and became disoriented in the dark. A summary is encapsulated by this account of a Victoria Cross award to Captain George Stuart Henderson DSO, MC & Bar, 2nd Bn Manchester Regiment. The citation for his posthumously awarded VC states:

Shortly after the company under his command was ordered to retire near Hillah, Mesopotamia, a large party of Arabs opened fire from the flanks causing the company to split up and waver. He at once led a charge which drove the enemy off. He led two further bayonet charges, during the second of which he fell wounded but struggled on until he was wounded again. ‘I’m done now. Don’t let them beat you!’ he said to an NCO. He died fighting.”

Order was eventually restored by a combination of bravery and superior firepower. The Commander-in-Chief later wrote:

“The officers of the 39th Battery and those of the cavalry behaved like heroes and it is thanks to their fine example and the discipline of those under their command that a complete disaster was averted.”

The final medal roll for the action would be a Victoria Cross, two Bars to the Military Cross, two Military Crosses, a Bar to the Distinguished Conduct Medal, two Distinguished Conduct Medals, five Military Medals, two Indian Orders of Merit and two Indian Distinguished Service Medals.

The story of the Henderson VC is here

However, some of the Manchester’s became lost in the dark and fell into the hands of the Arabs. Some were killed immediately whilst others were taken prisoner.

The best casualty summary I could find states:

“20 men killed, 60 men wounded and 318 missing. Only 79 British and 81 Indian missing soldiers were later released by the Arabs (and some of these had been captured previously), so the count of men dead was in fact over 180. The 1/32nd Sikh Pioneers lost 30 men killed; being non-Muslim they stood little chance of survival if captured. The Manchester Regiment lost 3 officers and 131 NCOs and men killed; it is believed that around 100 prisoners from the Manchester Regiment were taken to Najaf and killed there.”

The matter was eventually discussed in Parliament. The below extract from Hansard dated 21st October 1920, involving Winston Churchill, is self explanatory:

Hillah Fighting (Manchester Regiment)

Sir W Seager:
“asked the Secretary of State for War whether he is able now to supply the House with further information regarding the heavy casualties in July last to the Manchester Regiment in Mesopotamia?

Lt Colonel Hurst:
asked the Secretary of State for War what information he can give regarding the fate of the soldiers of the 2nd Battalion Manchester Regiment reported missing in Mesopotamia in July last; whether there is any hope of their being alive; if so, where they are and how they are being treated; and if he has any information as to Lance-sergeant E. Fryer, No. 79581, and Private T. Howard, No. 88725, of the same unit, both reported missing?

Mr W Churchill:
On 30th July, the General Officer Commanding, Mesopotamia, reported that a small column had been heavily attacked near Hillah on the 24th, and that a total of 205 British other ranks were “missing.” The majority of these were understood to belong to the Manchester Regiment. On the 9th August, 78 non-commissioned officers and men of this regiment were reported as known to be prisoners in Arab hands. Subsequent reports as to the treatment of British prisoners have been to the effect that they were well treated by the Arabs. A report received on the morning of the 20th inst. stated that 79 British prisoners were brought in by the Arabs on 19th October and handed over to the 55th Brigade Column. No reports as to their condition have yet been received. The fate of the remainder of the missing men is unknown, and I regret that no further information has been received in the War Office concerning the two soldiers mentioned in the last part of the question by the hon. and gallant Member for Moss Side”.

So there we have a taste of what went on in July 1920. But what do we know of Herbert?

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission registration report gives us a clue:

What is of interest from the Grave Registration record is that it refers to the ‘late Mary Ann Crook.’ Mary died in October 1922, so it is clear that records were being compiled long after his capture and death.

His CWGC entry is here: Herbert Julius Crook

So if Herbert was part of the Manchester Column, we know that he was a prisoner of war and dead by 22nd August. I have no source for the report that confirms this, or his cause of death. It may be he died of wounds or disease, or equally he may have been one of the unfortunates, marched off to Najaf and murdered in retaliation for the mistreatment by the British in other events. Research on British Prisoners of War in the revolution has proved difficult, with very few facts available. The Manchester Column incident seems to be the only incident where a significant number of prisoners were taken, so maybe it is likely Herbert was involved, but equally, he could have been taken in a separate incident. In any case, he was dead at least a month before Winston Churchill updated Parliament on the fate of the known POW’s. I suspect we’ll never really know. In any case, Churchill summed up the situation above.

The main available authority on the campaign is “Insurrection in Mesopotamia” by Lt General Sir J Aylmer Haldane which, when published in 1922, had the below appendix.

If these figures are accurate, and the CWGC reports are true that Herbert died a prisoner of war, the records suggest that he was the only British soldier to die while detained by rebel forces. I find that both sad and horrifying. While the narrative talks of missing men, and also of others being summarily executed at Najaf, Herbert’s available facts are explicit that he died a POW. Shockingly unique if true.

The insurrection, which lasted to October, was followed by harsh military retribution including allegations of war crimes by the RAF bombers against civilian populations.

A blog by Christopher A Lawrence explains the revolt and subsequent casualty figures in the link below, but largely relies on Haldane.

Further Reading Here

Herbert has no known grave and is commemorated on the Basra Memorial. The memorial itself, like Herbert, now lies ‘lost’ in the desert, having been moved from its original position at Basra port in 1997 by Saddam Hussein, to location 1km off Highway 1 on the road to Nasiriyah.

The Basra Memorial

The politics of modern Iraq has its roots in the events of 1920, and the war dead of conflict there have not received a peaceful rest. Control wasn’t really established until 1924, and Britain supplanted a King on the Iraqi people and the nation assumed Protectorate status. Modern history tells a complicated story. Attached in the link below is an article describing the difficulty of maintaining memorials there today:

CWGC in Iraq

So in conclusion, I accept that I may have extrapolated facts regarding one particular incident to make sense of what little is known of Herbert’s death, and he may not have been there at Hillah at all. But what is certain is he died in enemy hands during the Arab Rebellion of 1920. The story of how he found himself attached to an Indian Division in the Middle East, like his body, is sadly lost to history. As a final sad footnote, his medal card below shows that his award of the General Service Medal with Iraq Clasp, was sent to his family almost four years after his death and 18 months after the death of the mother who mourned him.

Medal Card for Herbert Crook

We will, nevertheless, remember Herbert, and this hidden chapter of military history, however he met his end.

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