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British Legion
The Royal British Legion

SPALDWICK - Walter Whittlesea DIGHTON

Compiled and copyright © 2004 Andy Pay & Martin Edwards


Private 8743 2nd Bn., Norfolk Regiment. Killed in action Monday, 22nd November 1915. Age 24. Born St. John's, Huyntingdon, enlisted Huntingdon. Son of Alice Dighton, of Cross Cottage, Brampton, Huntingdon, and the late Walter Dighton. Commemorated on the Basra Memorial, Iraq. Panel 10.

  From Huntingdonshire Heroes of the First World War by John Bell ISBN 0 946965 21 8. There are three letters from this man to home in this book.



(Information gathered by Andy Pay)

"I went up the Tigris with one hundred young, clean delightful fellows By then one saw vividly how great it was to be their kin...... And we wars casting them by thousands into the fire to the worst of death."

(from "Seven Pillars of Wisdom" by Lawrence of Arabia)

Whit Dighton was born in St John's parish of Huntingdon in 1891, the son of Alice and Walter. His father was, at the time of the Great War, the Sergeant policeman in Spaldwick. Sergeant Dighton died on the 3rd February 1926 and is buried in Brampton Churchyard. Whit's unusual second Christian name is inherited from his paternal grandfather Whittlesea Daniel Dighton who died on 13th February 1886, at the age of 56, in Godmanchester.

Whit was a regular soldier, a private, number 8743 in the 2nd Battalion the Norfolk Regiment. At the outbreak of war the 2nd Norfolks were serving in India as part of the 18th (Indian) Brigade in the 6th (Poona) Division. Indian brigades were made up of one British and three native Indian Battalions. In the same brigade as Whit's Norfolks were serving the 7th Rajputs, the 104th Rifles and the 110th Mahrattas.

The Indian Army was established for border policing and for prevention of inter tribal wars. They were entirely under the control of the Indian Government of the day. Although the numbers of troops available was extremely limited the Indian Government did send several Expeditionary Forces to the various theatres of war. Force A went to France in 1914, Forces B and. C went to East Africa and Force D to Mesopotamia. Force D was originally the whole of the 6th (Poona) Division comprising the 16th, 17th and 18th Indian Brigades and. supplementary troops. As the Mesopotamia Campaign developed the Force was to expand.

Mesopotamia was that part of the Middle East at the head of the Persian Gulf we now know as Iraq. Most of the Middle East at that time was under the control of the Turkish Ottoman Empire. The importance of Mesopotamia was its close proximity to the Persian Oil fields upon which Britain depended for fuel oil for our navy.

Although Turkey did not immediately come into the war it was expected that they would do so sooner or later thus posing an additional threat to our supply of oil. We finally declared war on Turkey on 2nd. November 1914. Part of Force D was already at sea, positioned at the head of the Gulf, awaiting orders to land.

It was hoped that warring factions of Arab tribes would rebel against their Turkish masters thus assisting the British troops. The Arabs were found to be very fickle and usually sided with who ever was winning at the time. After battles they rapidly began plundering the dead and murdering the wounded with no distinction as to which side they were supposed to be supporting at that time.

The early Mesopotamia campaign was to be fought mainly on the flat marshy plains either side of the River Tigris from the Shat-al-Arab to Basra, Qurna and Kut. Subsidiary expeditions were made to take Ahwaz in Persia to guard the oil pipeline and along the Euphrates to Nasiriya to protect the Basra flank. The main method of transport was by boat along the rivers and, where the rivers became too strong or dried up, by marching. Transportation was to be but one of the problems of the campaign; others being the scorching daytime weather which turned into freezing during the nights, the flood rains during winter, disease and of course the enemy themselves. The Middle Eastern campaigns offered a much wider variety of misery and danger than those on the Western Front.

On the 6th November 1914 Whit Dighton’s brigade sailed from Bombay. On the same day the 16th Brigade, whose British battalion was the 2nd Dorsets, landed at Fao in the Shat-al-Arab. Whit's brigade landed at Sunniya on the 15th November on the western bank of the river just below Basra. These initial landings went largely unopposed but the Turks made several attacks in the following days accompanied by much harassment from Arab tribesmen. As the campaign progressed the enemy became reinforced by Turkish home troops and stiffened by German artillery but the earlier battles mainly involved Arab levy armies. Lack of reinforcements for Force D was to hinder them until well into 1916 by which time the original force had ceased to exist, as we shall see.

To establish a safe enclave around Basra the Force pushed northward. Our troops entered Basra on the 23rd November after its abandonment by the Turks and a 28-mile forced march by the Norfolks and the 110th Mahrattas to secure the open town. The next target was to be Qurna at the junction of the Tigris and the Euphrates. This was reputed to be the location of the Garden of Eden but our troops would have described it in somewhat different terms. On the 1st December a company of the Norfolks with the 104th Rifles and 110th Mahrattas attacked Qurna without success. They then waited for reinforcements before recommencing the attack. On 7th December the Norfolks, at bayonet point, took the forward defences with the town falling on the 9th Force D held here until after the New Year.

Massive Turkish reinforcements came pouring in whilst only a trickle of reinforcements came from India and Egypt for Force D. January brought continuous skirmishing around Qurna and in other occupied areas. Floods prevented any northerly movement from Qurna or even strengthening of defences. Eventually Qurna was left with a small garrison whilst the remainder of the Force retired towards Shaiba and Basra to await more favourable conditions.

On April 12th 1915 after some days of probing assaults a force of some 12,000 Turks and 10,000 Arabs attacked Shaiba where the Norfolks were located. They did not take the town but retired to dig in about 1500 yards from our lines to continue their assaults. Reinforcements were sent for from Basra but the floods hindered them. The following is from the Hunts Post dated 28th May 1915 and it tells a little of the action at Shaiba during those few days in April.

"Sgt and Mrs Dighton of Spaldwick have received several interesting letters from their eldest son Pte Whit Dighton of the 2nd Norfolks who has been on active service in the Persian Gulf since last November and is possibly the only representative from the Huntingdon district out there, .......... Pte Dighton says the country in which he is now located is a desert, miles away from any town, with blinding sandstorms which are far worse than rain. After four days terrific fighting against a superior body of Turks, "suddenly we received the order to charge. We fixed bayonets and put all the strength into it we could. The Turks were completely taken by surprise, and we were upon them in a flash. Their confusion was indescribable. They ran for their lives, thousands of them, and we quickly occupied their trenches, and simply potted them over like ninepins. As they ran some threw away their arms and surrendered. Our artillery completed their rout. Their losses totalled some thousands ....... I cannot speak too highly of our officers; they are bricks - every one of them. One gave me his last drop of water from his bottle, or I don't think I should have been left to tell the tale."

On the 13th April the Norfolks had broken out to rush the Turkish front line trenches and took them at bayonet point. They did not immediately pursue the enemy to the second line but rested up. They had been under harassment for some days and directly under arms for 36 hours continuously. On the 14th April an attack on the Turkish second line entrenchments began at noon with White 18th Brigade on the right of the line and the 16th Brigade on the left. This developed into a stationary firefight, in the heat of the midday sun. At 4 pm a last British effort was made and the Turkish rear lines fell. This would be the charge mentioned in Whit's letter.

The Turks retreated for 90 miles to Khamsamiya, not pursued by the British who only followed for a short distance but by their erstwhile Arab allies who saw the weakened Turks as ripe pickings. For the three days fighting our losses totalled 1200 men. The Turks lost 6,000 killed and wounded and 1,000 as prisoners. The Turkish counterattack on Shaiba had been defeated and the British path would now lay northward past Qurna towards Baghdad.

The next action the Norfolks were to see was in June when they supported the 17th Indian Brigade after the taking of Amara on the 3rd of that month. Force D's attention was then turned toward Nasiriya on the Euphrates. The idea was to consolidate that area into a defensive zone to prevent further enemy action against Basra and Shaiba; as had taken place in April.

The Norfolks took an active part in the Battle of Nasiriya against superior numbers and the town fell on the 25th July 1915. At times weather and. disease took a greater toll than the enemy. The Nasiriya battle had cost the Force 800 battle casualties but also a further 2,000 were sick from disease and. heat stroke, The British troops then rested from their exertions until August when the advance north began in earnest.

Using Amara as a forward base Force D advanced to Kut. By the 16th September they were positioned at Sannaiyat, about 8 miles from Kut, having travelled by flotilla up the Tigris. The 25th September saw them concentrated. in front of the Es Sirm position. 11,000 British and Indian troops faced on in depth and well constructed defence system straddling the Tigris manned by over 18,000 Turkish troops. The British plan had 18th Brigade, with the Norfolks assaulting the front of the Es Sinn position and 16th and 17th

Brigades each looping a flank of the position in an attempt to encircle it. These latter two brigades found themselves under attack from their own rear and bad to face about for their own defence before being able to complete the encirclement. This manoeuvre prevented them bringing force to bear on the Es Sinn defences. In consequence the Turkish position was not breached and. nightfall found our troops lodged, around it as described. Attempts were made to bring in the wounded but marauding Arabs killed many and others died of exposure as the temperature rapidly dropped.

By the morning Force D was once again prepared for the attack but during the night the Turks had evacuated their positions and were retiring northward. They bad also evacuated Kut and on the 28th September our troops entered the town. There was to be no rest for the Norfolks for on the 30th September they were embarked on a flotilla with the remainder of their brigade to begin the pursuit to Aziziya where they arrived on 5th October.

In a letter to his family, dated 8th October 1915, Whit has this to say:

"The big battle is over, thank God, and our gallant troops were successful. We lost rather heavily, but gained what we wanted viz the enemy's position and another important town. Their losses were exceedingly heavy, we captured 1,400 prisoners, nine big guns, and they lost over 1,700 killed. The agonies we endured were awful, thirst again was what hampered us mostly. All the drink we had for two days, when the battle was at its height, was 11/2 pints each man. We could not go to and fro to fetch it, the fire from the enemy's big guns and small arms was too heavy. We are only about 60 miles from Baghdad, but we cannot hope to reach there yet. I again came through safely, God knows how I did it though, on one or two occasions we were nearly shelled out of our trenches. The Turks were assisted by German gunners, and they were not to be laughed at. My company officer was killed by a shell, he was sitting in the trenches laughing and joking when a shell burst right in the trench and he got hit in the stomach. Poor man he only lived a few minutes, and died in awful agony. My platoon officer was also injured by the same shell, but not seriously. We have been fighting now almost 12 months and ought to get a relief. I do wish they would send one and give us a rest, which no one can deny we deserve. Troops are still fairly cheerful. Oh! just to sit down to a good square English dinner, I would. not grudge giving any price for one."

Aziziya where Whit wrote this letter was over 100 miles from Kut and over 250 miles from Amara where they had started from in early September. The Turks had once again dug in, this time at Ctesiphon, but Force D remained at Aziziya to wait permission to advance and also to allow supplies and reinforcements to arrive. An Indian Division released from the Western Front joined them but many more Turkish troops also arrived at Ctesiphon released from Gallipoli. The Turkish strength grew more rapidly than that of Force D.

A letter from Whit to his family, dated 22nd October 1915 describes his time of waiting at Aziziya:

"We are all very busy building fortifications up for an attack which we are expecting from the Turks any moment (let 'em come). We are not advancing any further up country until we get good news from the Dardanelles, and also are awaiting orders from England. We are all sorry as we have to remain in this out of the way place for weeks, and we are all looking forward to entering the big city of Baghdad, where our expedition would have ended. What do you think of the big advance: 258 miles in less than three weeks? That is what you call an advance, is it not? Baghdad’s only 49 miles from here. You have heard of our sweeping over the Turks on Sept 24, 25 and. 26, have you not? They retreated over 200 miles, and of course we followed them up. They have again sent us a note kindly asking us "to clear out of our present position". Do you think we take any notice of their threats? No. They have given us three days in which to pack our tricks. Saucy bounders, if they want another rough time of it they can have it. Our expedition is known as "Never Retires", and. up to the last man, rather than give in to their wants we would rather die than spoil our grand record. I'm proud to belong to such an expeditionary force as "Force D". So never fear all will continue to go well with us as every man is in such excellent spirits, and. although we have some very trying times we continue to smile through it all."

This is the last letter that I can trace from Whit. Another 21/2 weeks passed before Force D got its permission to advance. As Whit had said they had been fighting not only the Turks and Arabs but also the weather and disease and lack of reinforcements for a year. Their last fateful advance began on 11th November when Whit’s brigade took Kutaniya. Zor fell on the 19th and the Force found itself before Ctesiphon; this was as far as it was to get.

On the 22nd November the Battle of' Ctesiphon took place. Force D comprised 10,000 infantry and 4,000 artillery, cavalry and support troops. They were ranged against a strong defensive position held by 18,000 Turkish infantry, a strong cavalry brigade and numerous Arab auxiliaries. The battle began at 6 am and the Turkish forward trenches were soon overrun. At 9 am the main British attack took place with 6 battalions (6,000 infantrymen) in extended formation advanced under a protective cover of artillery and machine gun fire. They had 5,000 yards to cover before reaching their first objective. They didn't flinch or waiver or fire a shot until they reached the Turkish wire 40 yards from the Turkish front line. That line was taken by 10 am, at bayonet point, but with many casualties. Three hours later the Turks were completely evicted from their first line trenches and the British had advanced to within 800 yards of their second line. All must have looked well for Force D. However in the heat of the midday sun the superior force of Turks counterattacked. Our troops slowly gave way. Unlike the Turks Force D had no fresh troops to call in. The stragglers were brought together to make another advanco bat it waa in vain.

At 5 pm when darkness came the Turks withdrew to their own second line and quietness came to the battlefield. Over 50 percent of Force D had become casualties. The four field ambulances only had facilities for 400 wounded and that day they had ten times that number. The wounded in the field had to be largely left to fend for themselves despite heroic efforts by the medical staff, and by their comrades in arms. By this time Whit Dighton would also have been lost. Re had survived six battles without a scratch but the seventh, at Ctesiphon, was one too many for him and. also for many of his comrades. Ctesiphon had cost the Expeditionary Force 682 killed, 3674 wounded and. 237 missing.

Force D's sufferings were not yet at an end. They worked feverishly through the night to prepare for the next days battle. They were now on the defensive; they were the attacked not the attackers. The Force held for a few days before commencing an orderly retirement toward Kut. This was relatively unhindered until 30th November when the Turks overtook them just south of Aziziya. Here the British and Indian Cavalry came into their own and protected the infantry and the main force by a brilliant rearguard action driving off the pursuing Turks. The retirement continued in earnest, at one stage covering 28 miles non stop in an attempt to put distance between themselves and the enemy. They reached Kut on the 3rd December and settled in for a siege.

The Force had two months of supplies at Kut and hoped that this would give them enough time for reinforcements and relief to arrive. However, floods, transport problems and marauding Arab and Turk units hindered the rapidly assembled relief force drastically. It could make but little progress. The garrison at Kut held out until 29th April 1916 when the surviving troops numbering 10,000 and 3,000 camp followers surrendered. Force D bad more suffering to come as 'they were sent north in a forced march which cost them casualties by the hundred. From the first to last the siege of Kut cost the Empire 40,000 casualties including those suffered by the relief force.

It was to be late in 1916 before any real advance was made and a much superior eventually took Baghdad in March 1917, better prepared and better supported force than Force D had been. After Kut Force D ceased to exist and its original constituents, the 6th (Poona) Division, remained, disbanded until after the War although the British battalions were themselves reconstituted from fresh drafts to take part in the relief force.

By the end of hostilities in 1918 Mesopotamia had cost the British Empire 15,814 killed or died of wounds, 12,807 died of disease, 51,385 wounded and 13,494 prisoners or missing. It had been a very different campaign in a very different environment to the main theatre, the Western Front, but the combatants could justly be proud of their achievements under such adversity.

Whit Dighton was typical of the "young, clean, delightful fellows" mentioned by Lawrence of Arabia in the quote at 'the head of this story. Lawrence led the revolts in Palestine, Jordan and. Syria and believed wholeheartedly in encouraging and supporting the Ar8b peoples to do the fighting against their oppressors 'the Turks in their own way. He didn't believe in using European troops or tactics. He prided himself in not having any Europeans killed in actions he directed, and these were many and successful. Lawrence visited Mesopotamia during the siege of Kut to advise the relief force which preferred to fight the British style of campaign rather than use Lawrence's methods. The result was a long drawn out operation with thousands of British casualties. One cannot however take away the devotion to duty and bravery so aptly displayed by Force D and Lawrence would not have wished to do that. His admiration was very clearly for the common soldier,

Whit Dighton has no known grave but is commemorated by name on the Basra Memorial, panel number 10. This memorial is located 5 miles north of Basra on the right hand bank of the river. It is a memorial to the officers and men of the British Empire who fell in the Mesopotamia campaign or died as prisoners of war in Syria and Asia Minor between 1914 and the end of August 1921. The names of 7,618 British soldiers, 33,431 Indians, 11 Australians, 6 Nigerians, 4 Mauritians, 3 British West Indians, 1 Cingalese and 1 Canadian, all of whom have no known grave, are recorded.

1 May 2004

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