Swavesey and the Great War

Gunner G.E.Canham

The Swavesey roll of honour makes sad reading but it is important to remember that many local men who served in the war returned to tell of their experiences.One such man was Gunner G.E.Canham who joined The Royal Garrison Artillery on 10th March 1917.In civil life Canham ran a grocery store in Swavesey High Street and along with his wife regularly attended the Baptist chapel.

The following letter from “somewhere in Mesopotamia”was published in the local newspaper on 22nd March 1918.

Chasing the Turks

A Swavesey Man’s Experiences With The Guns

"The call came on Sunday,December 2nd,and at 9:30pm.,after receiving a small tube of iodine and placing our field dressing in the allocated pocket,we (signallers) took our places on the motor lorries on top of stores etc.We are cautioned against singing and smoking whilst on our journey,and at 10:00pm.the battery is heading for one position for action.Our way is taken through desert and wild country until 6am.Progress has been slow but sure,and we have advanced some 18 or 20 miles.We arrive at our position at the break of day only to find that the turks have learned of our increased energies and have retreated a number of miles.This was a great dissapointment for the boys as the report was that we had come on purpose to drive the turks out of the hills.Our disappointment soon turned to delight,as after “breaking our fast”,we continued over more ground chasing the enemy.More miles of sandy desert are covered,not oinly by the battery,but by infantry,cavalry,pack mules,moving hospitals etc, etc.To see this moving across the plain is the sight of a lifetime.

We (so we think) are moving to the flank of the enemy,but again the retreating Turks have spoilt our chances and has again retired.We are ordered to pack up after just waiting for the order to load and fire.We again think of the inner man,and partake of a tin of rabbit (between three) and army biscuits.We again move off waiting instructions,arriving at a place to sleep soon after 9:00pm.We soon get our tea over,and lie down to rest in the open under the lorries and in any sheltered spot that we can find.On Tuesday morning after breakfast,we are earnestly seeking the road through the hills in pursuit of the turks.We reach the entrance shortly before 11am.Water is our next requirement before proceeding further,also a wash,which we have not had since Sunday evening.We travelled some 3 miles there and back for this particular luxury and necessity,and found upon our arrival back at the lorries that tea had been issued,and I was fortunate enough to get the last two cups for my friend and myself.

Our journey continued through the hills and frequently we are struggling with the lorries due to the softness of the sand,and arrive at a village after nightfall.We now await the ration lorry which is delayed for some reason,and we are very glad when it arrives and thoroughly enjoy a tea of “bully” and some biscuits and a cup of tea.Ere an hour has passed we are again off on our mission over hill,down dale,through the hills (walking),hoping to come up with the enemy in the morning.Somewhere about midnight you would have seen us still struggling with lorries and guns-over the highset peaks.Each time we arrived at the top the men dropped off to sleep for the few moments they were waiting.The last car is up,and again we are on the march for seven or eight miles on foot,and we are in sight of the camp at 7:30am,having covered some 20 miles since entering the hills.We now enjoy a hastily prepared breakfast of bacon and biscuits and a cup of tea.Again we snatch a much needed wash-only two of us,all others were stopped-as we were waiting to cross the river,rather a difficulty seeing the enemy had blown up the centre of the bridge.

Again that determined spirit wins,and little did the Turk think we should go through the waters with our guns.We continued until stopped by the higher command,and away we went again across the desert some six or seven miles to the help of our infantry,only to see them chase the Turks up the slopes and over the top.And so for the second time our attempts at coming to grips with the enemy were frustrated.Here we were congratulated by HQS for our part in the attack,and though no shells were fired by us the enemy must have known of our intention and thus saved us expense.How much I should have loved for you all to have seen us go into action.Some eating their bacon on biscuits,some without coats or rations for the day,and not one of them,I am sure<had one thought of fighting.This was Wednesday and we had not slept for 48 hours,and we were some 8 or 9 miles from camp.We still had enough strength to walk back and find a bridge had been built,and we were able to walk straight back across to the camp,arriving there at 7 o’clock.You may be sure that after tea we were soon down to sleep (in the open) and up againat 7:30 the following morning.

After breakfast we were told to parade with towel,and away we go for a lovely dip in the river.The sun was shining and under the shelter of the bank we had an enjoyable bathe,and thus closed our part of the action.”

Where was Canham ?

One of the interesting aspects of researching letters and documents of the period, is the challenge of discovering specific locations and troop dispositions following the omission (because of the censor) of such information in the original documents.

In this case I can reveal that the location was the Jabal Hamrin heights 100 miles north of Baghdad in what is now known as Iraq.The action was fought by the 13th &14th Indian Divisions supported by 3 Brigades of the RFA.Canham was included in the RFA roll call.

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