Researched and written by Anne Wright
Pte H F T Bullen
1/6th Battalion, East Surrey Regiment,
attd. Royal Flying Corps
Harold Frederick Thomas Bullen was a Weybridge lad. He was born in the town on 5 January 1896 and baptised at St. James’ Church a month later on 1 February. He attended St James’ School (Baker Street), belonged to the Weybridge Cadets, worked at Lang Propeller Ltd. in Hamm Moor Lane as an apprentice French Polisher and enlisted in the army in Weybridge on 2 February 1914. Harold was the eldest of five children born to his parents Frederick Charles (b. 1873 in Guildford) and Emily Quarrell (b. 1873 in Southsea, Hampshire); they remained in Weybridge until at least 1934. Frederick described himself as a milk carrier in 1896 and as a milk houseman in 1911. The family lived in Elm Grove Road.
Harold’s first job, aged 13, was as a butcher’s errand boy but he then sought to become a skilled man when he joined Lang Propellers Ltd. which at its height produced wooden propellers for nearly every aeroplane in England. Alcock and Brown flew across the Atlantic in a Vickers Vimy with propellers from Lang’s. His experience with this firm may have been instrumental in his later attachment to the Royal Flying Corps. When Harold enlisted in February 1914 he was five feet ten inches tall, 18 years old and in good physical shape. He was posted to the 1/6th East Surreys, a territorial battalion, which embarked Southampton on 29 October 1914.
They were bound for India and arrived at Bombay on 2 December 1914. Harold saw service in the sub-Continent for eight months; he left Bombay on 6 August 1915, arriving at Basra, Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) a few days later on 15 August. At this time Mesopotamia was a province of the Turkish Empire and when the Turks entered the war on the side of Germany and her allies on 29 October 1914 Britain quickly opened a front in Mesopotamia to protect vital oil supplies around Basra. Men were drawn largely from the Indian Army. Early engagements involving British controlled forces were successful; oil installations in Basra were secured with its capture in November 1914 and that of Qurna (at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates) in December. Emboldened by this progress and underestimating Turkish resistance it was decided to target the capital Baghdad. By 28 September 1915 Kut-el-Amara on the banks of the Tigris had been taken but as the troops moved on their supply lines became ever more extended. Wretched defeat came at Ctesiphon in November so the survivors retreated to Kut-el-Amara. Harold was one of those besieged in Kut for the next 147 days from 7 December 1915 to 29 April 1916.
The 11,800 British and Indian survivors had to dig in very quickly as Kut was flat and exposed to the fire of the surrounding Turkish forces. The commanding officer, General Townsend, always believed they would be relieved but despite valiant efforts to do so this did not happen. Conditions for Harold and his comrades became ever more difficult; one survivor recalled that they had seven weeks of plenty, ten weeks of adequacy and four weeks of starvation. They were reduced to eating horse and mule meat and by 29 April the food had run out. The winter rains and cold had also aggravated their perilous plight. When the siege ended their suffering continued and escalated. Setting out on 6 May they were force marched to Baghdad where they were paraded through the streets, spat upon and reviled. One surviving officer, Henry Rich, recalled that the march was hard for the officers but ‘brutal and hellish’ for the men who had little food, water or medical care and were prodded on their way with the liberal use of rifle butts and whips.
Harold survived all of this and the journey across the Syrian Desert. His final destination was a prisoner of war camp at Adana in southern Turkey. His fate was not known for some time. In April 1918 the military authorities reported that correspondence addressed to him in Turkey had been returned and as he had not been heard of officially or otherwise since September 1916 he was believed to have died as a prisoner of the Turks between 23 September 1916 and 9 May 1917. A year later further details emerged when Sgt Read, Royal Air Force (4475) reported that Harold’s death took place between 23 – 30 September 1916 in the camp at Adana. Sometime in the summer of 1915 Harold was attached to what was then the Royal Flying Corps as a 2/Air Mechanic. In November 1918 the official British report on the Mesopotamian campaign declared that 3,290 British and Indian prisoners taken at Kut-el-Amara died in Turkish captivity, while a further 2,222 were missing presumed dead.
Harold is commemorated on the Basra Memorial (Panel 20 & 63) which was located 8 km from Basra but was moved by Saddam Hussein’s presidential decree in 1997 because of the sensitivity of the site, to its current position 32 km along the road to Nasiriyah. Over 40,000 others of the Mesopotamian campaign, who, like Harold have no known grave, are also remembered on the Memorial. When Fergal Keane, BBC correspondent, visited the site in 2003 he reflected that ‘There is an appropriate silence here – even the money changers, children mostly, approach you in whispers…..Over the decades the desert winds have done their work: segments of the slate have collapsed on the ground. There are little fragments of names scattered in the sand.’
British Army WW1 Medal Rolls Index Cards, 1914-1920, www.ancestry.co.uk
British Army WW1 Service Records, 1914-1920, www.ancestry.co.uk
The British Army in the Great War of 1914-1918, The Long, Long Trail – The Campaign in Mesopotamia, www.longlongtrail.co.uk
England, Surrey, Church of England Baptisms, 1813-1912, www.ancestry.co.uk
England, Surrey, Church of England Marriages, 1754-1937,
Podcast 18: Mesopotamia, Imperial War Museum’s Voices of the Great War, https://www.iwm.org.uk/history/voices-of-the-first-world-war-mesopotamia
Keane, Fergal ‘Basra’s lost imperial war grave’, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/3124828.stm
Memorial to the Masters and Old Boys of St James’School, Weybridge, Who Fell in the Great War 1914-1918, St James’ Church
Brenda Stotesbury Tree, www.ancestry.co.uk