Herbert Crook: Lost in the desert

“But the worst o’ your foes is the sun over’ead;
You ~must~ wear your ‘elmet for all that is said;
If ‘e finds you uncovered ‘e’ll knock you down dead;
An’ you’ll die like a fool of a soldier
Fool, fool, fool of a soldier”

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 his mothers thoughts. Maybe life was tough enough for Herbert that the post-war army seemed a good safe career choice, especially as a medic; or it was just an escape from a tough home environment. Either way, in the summer of 1920, Private 207522 Herbert Crook, Royal Army Medical Corps, found himself in the baking heat of Mesopotamia. He was almost 19 years old.

Herbert had enlisted as a volunteer on 10th December 1919 via Aldershot. Nothing of his service records survive, but we know that other men with consecutive service numbers to his enlisted on that date, so it is reasonable to assume that’s when he joined. Equally, other men in that draft were sent to India with the 91st reinforcement draft on 18th March 1920, so we assume Herbert followed that usual route to Mesopotamia. We know nothing else of his service.

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. Increasingly, the British public questioned the involvement of troops in the region. It was a difficult place to govern and police, and resentment began to boil over.

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 Al 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 south 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.

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 action is here: Henderson VC

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

Newspapers began to report the disaster within a fortnight, with varying accounts. Research shows differing numbers, but 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.”

Newcastle Journal 6th August 1920

Sheffield Independent 6th August 1920

The Times 7th August 1920

The Sunday Mirror 8th August 1920

The situation reached Parliament on 9th August:

HC Deb 09 August 1920 vol 133 cc17-8

Sir J. D. REES

asked the Lord Privy Seal if he can give the House any further information regarding the position on the Lower Euphrates?

Sir A Williamson (Parliamentary Secretary, War Office):

My right hon. Friend has asked me to reply. The 34th Brigade Column, under Brigadier-General Cunningham, which relieved Rumeitha, had reached Jerbuiyah, en route to Hillah, on 7th August. The newly laid railway lines, since the raids, have been distorted by the extreme heat, and this has caused the delay of the return of this relief column. On the 4th August, rebels concentrated for attack on Hillah, but were frustrated by a cavalry reconnaissance. The Kufa garrison is still holding out. The health of the troops is good, although the heat and weather are very oppressive. All the railways in Mesopotamia are intact except between Samawah and Mahmudiyah. Arab raids still go on.

Sir J. D. REES

How are the troops housed at Hillah?

Sir A Williamson

I am afraid I cannot answer that question.
Viscount Curzon:

Of what is the garrison at Kufa composed?

Sir A Williamson:

I cannot say, without notice.

In a written answer to Sir Donald Maclean, Winston Churchill (Secretary of State for War) reported:
HC Deb 09 August 1920 vol 133 cc51-2

Lieut.-Colonel MURRAY

asked the Secretary of State for War whether he has any further information to give to the House with regard to the attack on a British column near Hillah?

Mr Churchill:

No important news regarding the attack on Hillah has yet been received. A reassuring telegram has been received from the General Officer Commanding, Mesopotamia, with regard to the British prisoners taken in the recent operations. It appears that though they were very much neglected at first they are now receiving better care, and that the Army leaders have issued communiqués stating that the Arabs look on prisoners as a sacred trust and ordering the subordinate sheikhs to treat them well. The prisoners are said to be collected in the neighbourhood of Nejef. A friendly local doctor from Baghdad has been sent to them with clothing, comforts, and medicines under conditions which are expected to ensure his safe arrival. A list of the prisoners captured was asked for and will be telegraphed when obtained. General Haldane wishes the relations of the prisoners to be assured that their welfare is receiving the most earnest attention, and that every effort will be made to maintain touch with them and to secure good treatment.

The Daily Herald 25th September 1920
The Times 25th September 1920

The matter was raised again in Parliament on October 19th:

HC Deb 19 October 1920 vol 133 c793

Mr Clynes

asked the Secretary of State for War whether the Manchester Regiment, recently stationed at Tekrit, were engaged in the recent fighting in the neigbourhood of Hillah; if so, whether the whole of the battalion were engaged, or if part of the battalion remained at Tekrit; and whether he can state the number of casualties that occurred in the recent disaster to this regiment.

Mr Churchill:

As I stated on 5th August in reply to the right hon. Member for Peebles (Sir D. Maclean), three companies of the Manchester Regiment were sent with the column from Hillah, and were engaged in the recent fighting in that neighbourhood. The number of casualties to the regiment so far ascertainable are four officers (including two killed), 109 other ranks (including 10 killed), and, in addition, there are 122 other ranks at present unaccounted for.

It was further discussed on October 21st:

HC Deb 21 October 1920 vol 133 cc1091-2
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 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.
As can be seen from the exchanges is Parliament, there was a degree of confusion and alarm over events in Mesopotamia either side of the parliamentary September recess. But what became of Herbert?

Above is the Commonwealth War Graves Commission grave registration report for Herbert. 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

Based on the lack of other events where British forces, particularly RAMC men, could have been taken prisoner, it now seems highly probable Herbert was part of the 24th Combined Field Ambulance and the Manchester Column. In spite of exhaustive searching, there is a desperate lack of archive material and we know that he was a prisoner of war and dead by 22nd August. I have no source for the report that confirms this other than the reference to it above, or his cause of death.

What we do know is that the British prisoners were initially held by tribal leaders, then at Abu Sakhair, and finally held at Khan Al Shilan prison in the holy city of Najaf; probably arriving there on July 28th – Herbert’s 19th birthday.

From the written answer given by Churchill on August 9th there seems to be some assurance that the prisoners had eventually been treated well after initially being ‘neglected.’ The building had been an HQ for the Ottoman forces, but was now in Arab hands after being taken in the revolt. It is now a museum containing artifacts from the revolution. I’ve seen a video about the museum which contained a fleeting glimpse of a picture of the men being held.

POW’s at Khan Al Shilan 1920

The picture is undated, but information suggests the men were incarcerated from July 28th until their release on or around October 19th 1920 as per the above conversation in Parliament. I have no idea if Herbert is among those faces looking back at the camera. I hope he is, because it gives me a shred of consolation that at least for one moment in his captivity he was not in fear for his life, or alone.

It may be Herbert died of wounds or disease, or less likely 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, but this seems unlikely as it is suggested that the men held at Najaf were treated well. I have found no definitive report of British prisoners being executed by their captors, and there is only allusion to how they may have been mistreated when first captured. Reflections on their situation compared with modern events involving ISIS captives is the stuff of nightmares; I have only my imagination on the thoughts of those men as they fell into enemy hands. And because of this, unlike his brother Sidney killed by shellfire, there is the thought that Herbert had time to contemplate his fate.

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 it seems likely Herbert was involved. In any case, he was dead at least two months before Winston Churchill updated Parliament on the fate of the known POW’s. I suspect we’ll never really know what they went through.

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. It leads to one more heartbreaking discovery about Herbert.

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 crushed 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

So, after a century of turmoil in Iraq, and in the sands of long forgotten military history, Herbert Crook has no known grave and is commemorated on the Basra Memorial. Najaf is famous for its Wadi Al Salaam cemetery; the largest civil cemetery in the world. It is ancient and contains multiple millions of burials. Maybe Herbert was taken there, or maybe some other plot for non Muslims.

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. 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 India 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. Of all things that are lost, his name is not. In perpetuity….

Footnote July 2020: With many thanks to Chris Baker @1418research for his assistance and valiant efforts in my probably final attempt at uncovering what little information exists. With his help the newspaper articles and scant details of his enlistment have been added to the original blog.

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