From Allan Francis Harding, later to become Field Marshal Lord Harding of Petherton, first cousin to Geoffrey and nephew of Sarah Sophia (Sally) Pether (nee Harding)
Letters written either to his first cousin, Geoffrey G Pether Esq, British Civil Prisoner, Englanderlager, Ruhleben, Germany
or his Aunt Sarah (Sally) (nee Harding)
Censored writing if legible is written in italics & is in brackets.
G C Pether Esq, The Rest, Bedford Avenue, Barnet, Herts
My dear Geoff,
Very many thanks for your letter of 6th and 20th January, which, at any rate in the case of the former, I ought to have answered before. There are such a number of things that I want to write to you about that I donít quite know where to start.
I am glad to know that you are feeling stronger now, and I hope that you will soon have recovered your full strength. There is a rumour running round these parts that all regular officers are to be given two months leave. It is only a rumour and personally I donít place much faith in it but it would be delightful if I could get home, and spend a couple of months with you in the country.
You think I have left the Machine Gun Corps as I am temporarily commanding a battalion. No, machine gun units were organised in battalions nearly a year ago and became divisional troops. If it is of any interest to you I will briefly trace the history of the organisation of machine guns during the war. As you know in August 1914 we had two machine guns with each infantry battalions, organised as a section. As soon as the number of guns manufactured permitted it the section was made up to one of four guns. At the same time most - in fact I think I might say every - brigade had a brigade machine gun officer who organised the training of the four battalion sections. His powers depended entirely on his Brigadier, some brigadiers often used their machine guns for concerted actions under the brigade machine gun officer. In March 1916, this date applies to this country, as do any other dates I may mention hereafter; we were always behind the people in France - brigade machine gun companies were talked of, and in April they were formed by forming the old battalion sections into a separate unit, called a machine gun company, under the orders of the brigade machine gun officer. This unit was entirely self-contained and operated under the direct orders of the brigadier. I might say, in passing, that command of a M.G. Coy is in my opinion one of the best billets in the army for a young fellow, my reasons are too complicated to give here. Soon it was found that machine gun work was playing such an important part in all operations that some coordination of the work of the three machine gun companies in the division was necessary. To meet this demand a curious hybrid creature was found and called a Divisional Machine Gun Officer - I was once one of these things and I speak with feeling. His duties corresponded very largely with those of the old brigade machine gun officer, except that he dealt with companies instead of sections. He wasnít exactly a staff officer but he had no executive command, he was called a technical adviser and coordination was his task. In this country he lasted about six months and then it was thought - this was about March 1918 - that owing to the more concentrated nature of the fighting a higher organisation of machine guns was desirable. To obtain this they formed the machine gun companies of a Division into a battalion administered directly under the Division, and forming part of the divisional troops. In France a fourth company was given to each battalion, but personnel and material did not permit of that being done here. In any operations the M.G. battalion commander prepares a plan for the employment of all the available machine guns, in consultation with the infantry brigade commanders and the artillery commander. His plan is submitted to the Division for approval or disapproval according to taste, but once settled the Br commander is responsible for the proper execution of the plan. Of course the plan often, indeed one might say always, involves allotting some companies to brigades; but the opportunities for using guns under divisional control and greater than the casual observer might think, except of course in fighting of a very open nature. The present organisation has a very large number of advantages and disadvantages and it is a subject that will be largely discussed after the war.
I should like to hear what fellows in France have said about it - they have had it working longer than we have and have had many more opportunities of judging its real value. I'm afraid I have bored you and have told you many things you already know so lets change the subject. I'm just going out of my tent to look at the sunset which is more than usually fine tonight.
You asked whether there is likely to be a Palestine Civil Service or anything of that nature. At present the parts of Palestine and Syria that we are administering are run by what is called the O.E.T.A., Occupied Enemy Territory Administration - which is a purely military concern. It will undoubtedly develop into a kind of civil service in time, but I very much suspect that most of the fellows at present serving in a military capacity will be offered, and will accept, corresponding civil appointments, when the nature of the government of the country has been settled. The question of the government of Palestine and Syria, the status and extent of the kingdom of the Hedjaz is not going to be the simplest that the Peace Conference will have to find the answer to. There are so many conflicting interests - Syrian Jew and Arab. Then again the country is of immense strategic importance. Imagine a through railway route from Paris to Cairo - it only requires the conversion of gauge of some few hundred miles of railway to make that possible. The broad gauge line runs as far south as Rayah and the broad gauge line from Egypt will soon run as far north as Haifa. A narrow gauge line at present connects Tul Keram - on the Egypt - Haifa line - to Damascus and another narrow gauge runs from Damascus through Rayah to Beirut. Again the Baghdad line passes through the Taurus Tunnel north of Aleppo. Syria is the key of the railway routes to the East - Mesopotamia, Persia, India, and to Egypt and the whole of Africa from Cairo to the Cape. A big dream you say but a few years as time is counted now may easily see its completion. I haven't time, space, or ability, to discuss here other questions about the countries we have recently conquered and so opened up. The peoples, customs, possibilities and probabilities of Palestine and Syria even as I have seen them in a short stay in the country would keep me writing for days.
We are getting plenty of games here and keep very fit with the liberal amount of exercise. Football, hockey, tennis and polo form our chief amusements. We are fortunate in having quite a number of ponies that by care and training we have turned into quite passable polo ponies. So a liberal government provides us with, and feeds for us, polo ponies. The thing that we are so fed up about at present is that there is, I believe, a proposal to sell government horses locally. You have read an absurd poem about an Arab and his beautiful horse - Steed I think it is called. Very few of the Arabs, Egyptians or Jews that I have seen in these parts, deserve to have horses at all from the way they treat them. We hate the idea of the horses who have been our valued friends during the hard times of war being sold to be ill treated by some Cairo cab river or Arab peasant.
Well old boy I have bored you quite long enough for one day. The next time I write I will try and answer some more of your questions. I will honestly try and write more regularly in future.
Give my love to Uncle, Auntie and Viola and thank them for their kind wishes for my birthday. By jove I am getting old, twenty three seems an awful age. Cheerio, I hope to see you some time soon. Take care of yourself and donít try to hurry your cure.
Your affec. cousin