From the Gulf to Ararat, G.E. Hubbard’s memoir of his time as a member of the commission that negotiated the border that runs from the Persian Gulf to Mount Ararat, will be reissued this November. His granddaughter, Sue Littledale, talks about his memories of some of the issues that faced the Turco-Persian Frontier Commission in 1913.
When I first read my grandfather’s book From the Gulf to Ararat, which is reissued on 30th November, it was not the complex challenges of border diplomacy that stuck in the memory. True, the problems of finalising the border between Turkey and Persia in the early twentieth century were difficult enough. However, it was the physical demands of riding on horseback for nine months through harsh and frequently hostile terrain that gripped the imagination.
G.E. Hubbard was a 28 year old vice-consul in the Levant Service when, in 1913, he was appointed secretary of the British delegation on the multi-national Commission that was to bring an end to 70 years of wrangling over the border. Armed only with a typewriter and dogged determination, his task was to record the commission’s deliberations on a daily basis and prepare the final procès-verbal that enabled all parties to lay down the line – both literally and cartographically – by mutual agreement.
On 14th February 1914, he was to set out on horseback from Mohammerah in the Persian Gulf on the journey north to the foot of Mount Ararat. But first he had to find and train a horse that could carry him across desert, marshland and precipitous mountain passes – a not inconsiderable task for a young man whose main equine skills had been acquired at a French riding school where ‘stirrups were taboo and most of the riding was bareback’. Having single-handedly found and trained Archibald, who was to take him ‘girth deep through water and mud’ and ‘come down a breakneck track less than a foot broad in the dark’, he was ready to depart.
The 600 man caravan of Commission members, their escort and supplies for the entire trip had crossed the Mesopotamian desert before encountering their real first challenge. In the shadow of the mountains of Luristan they passed through a fertile yet uninhabited No Man’s Land, the feared hunting ground of the Sagwand Lurs and the Beni Lam, ‘two of the most predatory tribes in Asia … that live almost exclusively by plunder and rapine’. Forced to pitch camp for days while fixing 80 miles of disputed border, they escaped lightly with the loss of a dozen mules, a horse and four camels with their loads.
Instead it was the force of nature in the form of the River Douerij that almost stopped the expedition in its tracks. Two days and nights of torrential rain brought the river to within 2 inches of the plain, demolishing strips of desert two or three times its own breadth. Narrowly avoiding a flood on a biblical scale, they retrieved their saturated tents and provisions before moving on to the seemingly less treacherous River Tyb (illustrated above). Only after refreshing themselves on its grassy slopes did they discover its hidden qualities, ‘an extremely potent solution of Epsom Salts’, before fleeing ‘as from a city stricken with the plague’.
The physical demands of the journey were extreme. When on the march the caravan covered 32 kilometres a day. The heat in the desert in early March was already becoming intolerable and by the time the expedition reached Mendeli, on about the same latitude as Baghdad, the temperature in the plains was 100°F in the shade. Further north the caravan climbed into the cold heights of Kurdistan’s Avroman mountains, ‘clambering up rocky ravines and traversing steep slopes’ until they almost reached the snowy peaks 5000 feet above sea level.
The travails of the mules and their accompanying muleteers were equally harsh. It was not unusual for the mules, laden as they were with over 200 pounds of baggage, to be lost over a precipice. Some sank to their bellies crossing flooded rivers and ‘had to be unloaded midway before they could flounder through.’ On one occasion the mule carrying the Carte-Identique gave up and lay down mid-stream, submerging the only extant copy of the map setting out the agreed frontier line arrived at over the previous 70 years. Fortunately the poor animal was rescued and the map spread out to dry, thus avoiding the fate of the official report of the 1848 Commission which was lost for ever after being dropped overboard in the somewhat less exotic waters of the Thames off Gravesend.
Gilbert Ernest Hubbard (1885-1951) was appointed Secretary to the British Commissioners on the Turco-Persian Frontier Commission in 1913. Following a spell at the Foreign Office he became Private Secretary to Sir Hamar Greenwood, Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, subsequently taking up the position of First Secretary to HM Legation in Peking. After a decade as diplomatic agent to the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank he took up the position of Far Eastern Research Secretary at Chatham House. He wrote a number of books on industrialisation and British policy in the Far East.
Susan Littledale is G.E. Hubbard’s granddaughter.