WITH OUR ARMY IN PALESTINE
LATE OF "A" BATTERY, H.A.C., AND EGYPTIAN CAMEL TRANSPORT CORPS
LONDON: ANDREW MELROSE LTD. 3 YORK STREET, COVENT GARDEN, W.C. 1919
TO MY WIFE
Little has been said, and less written, of the campaigns in Egypt and Palestine. This book is an attempt to give those interested some idea of the work and play and, occasionally, the sufferings of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force, from the time of its inception to the Armistice. Severely technical details have been reduced to a minimum, the story being rather of men than matters; but such necessary figures and other data of which I had not personal knowledge, have been taken from the official dispatches and from the notes of eye-witnesses.
Here I should like most cordially to thank the following old comrades for their generous help: Capt. B. T. Hinchley, R.A.S.C., late of the Egyptian Camel Transport Corps, and L. Allard Stonard, Esq., late of "A" Battery, the Honourable Artillery Company, for permission to print their excellent photographs, which will, I am sure, add materially to the interest of the book; and R. Arrowsmith, Esq., late of "A" Battery, the Honourable Artillery Company, whose admirable notes have been of the greatest assistance to me in compiling some of the later chapters.
HIGHGATE, July 1919.
I. MERSA MATRUH AND THE SENUSSI 1
II. "SOMEWHERE EAST OF SUEZ..." 19
III. ON 'UNTIN'—AND SOME OTHER MATTERS 38
IV. KANTARA AND THE RAILWAY 46
V. THE WIRE ROAD 63
VI. "THE LONG, LONG TRAIL" 75
VII. ON THE FRINGE OF THE HOLY LAND 88
VIII. THE FIRST BATTLE OF GAZA 98
IX. THE RETREAT 113
X. THE SECOND ATTEMPT 127
XI. TEL EL JEMMI AND THE CAMELS 144
XII. CAVE DWELLERS AND SCORPIONS 157
XIII. IN THE WADI 170
XIV. THE ATTACK ON BEERSHEBA 184
XV. GAZA AT LAST 196
XVI. THE ROAD TO JERUSALEM 211
XVII. OU L'ON S'AMUSE 223
XVIII. IN THE JORDAN VALLEY 235
XIX. THE VALLEY OF CHAOS 247
XX. IN FULL CRY 260
XXI. OVER THE LADDER OF TYRE 270
XXII. DESERTED VILLAGES IN LEBANON 281
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
NATIVE MARKET AT MERSA MATRUH 16
SUNDAY MORNING IN THE GULF OF SUEZ 32
FELUCCAS BRINGING SUPPLIES TO KANTARA (see p. 54) 64
"THE LONG, LONG TRAIL" 80
I. CAMOUFLAGING A TENT WITH DESERT SCRUB (see p. 29) 144
II. A CAMEL CONVOY 144
SUMMER IN THE WADI GHUZZEE 176
IN THE JORDAN VALLEY—WADI AUJA 240
I. A WATER CONVOY 256
II. THE VALLEY OF CHAOS—BEFORE THE TURKISH RETREAT 256
THE VALLEY OF CHAOS—AFTER THE BOMBING RAID (see p. 255) 272
WITH OUR ARMY IN PALESTINE
MERSA MATRUH AND THE SENUSSI
It is a little difficult to know the precise place at which to begin this narrative. There are, as it were, several points d'appui. One might describe the outward voyage, in a troopship packed to three or four times its normal peace-time capacity; where men slept on the floors, on mess-tables, and in hammocks so closely slung that once you were in it was literally impossible to get out until the whole row was ready to move; and where we were given food (!) cooked and served under conditions so revolting as to turn the stomach at the bare sight of it. And there were other things....
But I do not think any useful purpose would be served by such a course. It was an unspeakably horrible voyage, but most of the troops travelling East experienced the same conditions; moreover, the praise or blame for those responsible for the early chaos will doubtless be meted out at the proper time and in the proper place.
Again, as far as most people at home are concerned, the Great Crusade began with the taking of Jerusalem and ended when the Turks finally surrendered in the autumn of 1918. This view, entirely erroneous though it be, is not unreasonable, for a thick veil shrouded the doings of the army in Egypt in the early days, and the people at home saw only the splendid results of two years' arduous preparation and self-sacrifice.
Now the tale of these weary months ought to be told that justice be done to some of the biggest-hearted men who ever left the shores of Great Britain and Australasia, and that the stupendous difficulties confronting them may be properly appreciated. It is no tale of glamour and romance; it is a tale of sheer, hard graft, generally under terrible conditions—for a white man.
Before we could even think of moving eastwards towards Palestine we had to set our own house in order. Egypt was seething with sedition, and the flame of discontent was sedulously fanned by the young excitables from Al Azhar, who probably were themselves stimulated by Turko-German propaganda—and "baksheesh." These had to be suppressed; and the task was not easy. Further, as far south as Aden there were Turkish garrisons, and troops in considerable numbers had to be detached to overcome them; this, too, was no small undertaking. Finally, a flowery gentleman called the High Sheikh or the Grand Sheikh of the Senussi had ideas above his station—and he had to be disillusionised.
This was a more serious matter, for the Senussi were the largest native tribe in Egypt, and Turkish and German officers had been very busy amongst them. Some account of the operations against them has already been published, but I believe it concerns mainly the Duke of Westminster's spirited dash with his armoured cars to rescue the shipwrecked survivors of the Tara, who were grossly ill-treated by the Senussi. Yet right up to the end of 1917 they were a source of trouble, and in 1915 the situation became so serious that a strong punitive force had to be sent to Mersa Matruh, on the Western Frontier of Egypt, to cope with it.
Here, I think, is where we must make our bow, for we had some small place in these operations; it was, in fact, our introduction to actual fighting, though we had already spent many torrid weeks on the Suez Canal. And no better mise en scene could we have than the old Missa, for the story of the campaign would be incomplete without mention of her; she was unique. Besides, everybody in Egypt knows the Missa. Those who had the misfortune to know her intimately speak of her with revilings and cast slurs upon her parentage.
Far back down the ages, possibly about the time when the admirable Mr. Stephenson was busy practising with his locomotive, the Missa might have been a respectable ship, but her engines had been replaced so many times by others more pernicious and evil-smelling, and new boards had been nailed so frequently and promiscuously about the hull, that she resembled nothing so much as an aged female of indifferent repute decked in juvenile and unseemly clothes; and her conduct matched her looks.
Most men in the army will have noticed that the authorities nearly always order a move or begin a "show" on the day of rest. I am no statistician, but if the tally of these lost hours in bed of a Sunday morning were kept, the army would have a few weeks' arrears of sleep to make up. On this particular occasion we went one better than Sunday; we began on a day when normally peace and goodwill go ringing round the world: Christmas Day, 1915. If there was any peace and goodwill about we failed to notice it, for it was blowing and raining hard, and we had to get half a battery of horse-artillery on board that deplorable ship.
It is no joke at the best of times embarking horses and mules; and as, in addition to the weather, we had the Missa to deal with, the humour of the proceedings did not strike any one—except the onlookers. For she rolled and pitched and plunged and dived as she lay there at her moorings. She was never still a moment, and, in a word, behaved like the graceless, mercurial baggage she was. But she was beaten in the end.
By dint of that curious mixture of patience and profanity characteristic of the British soldier when doing a difficult job, horses and guns were at length safely stowed away. Just before we sailed an old salt on the quay kindly proffered the opinion that it would be dirty weather outside. He was right. If the old Missa had behaved badly in Gabbari docks, she was odious once we got out to sea. She did everything but stand on her head or capsize—and did indeed nearly accomplish both these feats.
Normally the journey from Alexandria to Mersa Matruh, whither we were bound, occupies about sixteen hours. On this occasion the Missa took five days! A few hours after we left harbour the pleasing discovery was made that some one had mislaid a large portion of the rations for the voyage, though by a fluke several crates of oranges had been put on board—"in lieu," perhaps.
Not that the question of food interested any one very much just then, for by this time sea-sickness was taking its dreadful toll. Men were lying about the wave-washed decks too ill even to help themselves; indeed, the only thing possible was to seize the nearest firm object and hang on. Watering and feeding the horses was a horrible nightmare, but somehow it was done. The former was carried out by means of horse-buckets—an interminable business, interrupted at frequent intervals when the men were shaken and torn by awful bouts of sickness as they staggered or crawled along the foul, evil-smelling hold. Feeding was rather easier and quicker, for there was little to give the poor brutes, even had they wanted it. So it went on for four ghastly days.
On the fifth day, rations, water, and even those blessed oranges had almost given out, and to add to our joy the skipper, who was afterwards discovered to be a Bulgarian, had not the remotest notion of our whereabouts and lost his nerve completely. A big Australian actually did take the helm for a time and made a shot for the right direction. We had almost given up hope of reaching the land when, in a smother of foam and spray, there appeared a patrol-boat, the commander of which asked in his breezy naval way who we were and what the blazes we thought we were doing. On being informed he told us we were steering head-on for a minefield, and that if we wanted Mersa Matruh we must alter course a few points and we should be in before nightfall. Also, he added a few comments about our seamanship, but we were much too grateful to mind—besides, they really applied to the Bulgarian skipper.
It sounds rather like an anti-climax to say that we landed safely. True, men and horses were too apathetic and ill to care a great deal whether they were landed or no. Many felt the effects of that turbulent trip for weeks after, and certainly no one wished to renew acquaintance with the Missa! The only pleasing feature about the business was, if report be true, that the Bulgarian skipper died suddenly from a violent stoppage of the heart.
Those of us who expected to find a great camp seething with activity and alive with all the pomp and circumstance of war were disappointed to see a mere collection of tents scattered about promiscuously, as it were, within handy reach of the shore. Here and there were piles of timber, R.E. stores, and the beginning of the inevitable ration dump; it was, in fact, a typical advanced base in embryo. Nobody seemed more than mildly interested in our arrival, with the exception of a supply officer who was making agitated inquiries about a consignment of forty crates of oranges which he said should have been on board.
When we were sufficiently recovered to sit up and take notice of every-day matters again, we learnt that there had been some very heavy fighting during December, culminating in a fine show on Christmas Day and Boxing Day, when the Senussi, although they took full advantage of the extraordinarily difficult country, were trounced so severely that more fighting was unlikely for some weeks. Curiously enough, this cheerful news rather damped our enthusiasm. We had come expecting to find a large and exciting war on the beach waiting for us. Instead, we found battery-drills innumerable for the better training of our bodies and the edification of our minds. Also, there were fatigues, long and strenuous, which our souls abhorred. It is curious how the British soldier loathes the very word "fatigue." He will make the most ingenious excuses and discover that he has extraordinary and incurable diseases in order to dodge even the lightest. Possibly the authorities, who sometimes see more than they appear to, had this in mind when later they changed the word to "working-party." There is a more dignified sound about it, though I don't know that it made the work any more acceptable.
In the evening we forgathered in an aged marquee used as a canteen, and cultivated the acquaintance of our new comrades, the Australian Light Horse, of which splendid corps more in the proper place. They were an independent but friendly crowd. Indeed, the word "friendly" is not quite enough; the Army one "matey" expresses so much better our attitude towards each other, after the first tentative overtures had been made. And this "matey" feeling animated the whole campaign against the Senussi, to a greater degree, I think, than any other. Perhaps the conditions drew us closer together, for they were deplorable.
It rained all day and almost every day; tents were water-logged and one moved about in a slough of sticky mud. We ate mud, we drank it in our tea, we slept in it, for our wardrobes had been left behind in Cairo. Harness-cleaning was another bugbear, but even that succumbed to the mud after a time; and as the weeks flew by and inspections, infallible finger-posts to a "scrap," became more frequent we knew that all was not in vain and that very soon we should have the chance of justifying the long, arduous days of preparation. And quite suddenly it came.
One evening in the canteen the whispered news—"straight from the horse's mouth"—was passed round that we should be in action in two days! It was laughed to scorn. How often had we heard that tale before! There had certainly been an inspection of field-dressings in the morning, which usually meant something, yet even that had been done before and nothing had come of it. We were frankly sceptical. However, this time the doubting Thomases were wrong, for the very next day we were roused at a depressingly early hour by the guard, who told us in a hoarse whisper that we were "for it."
We were sufficiently experienced in turning out to get the preliminaries over quickly and without the amazing chaos that usually attends the efforts of the beginner. It is indeed remarkable how soon one becomes accustomed to working in the dark. Breast collars seem to slide into their places and buckles and trace-hooks find their way into one's hands of their own volition. By sun-up we were well on our way across the desolate, dreary waste.
It was terribly heavy going, over fetlock-deep in mud, as hour after hour we toiled along. Beyond small bodies of cavalry dotted here and there on the desert, there did not appear to be any signs of a battle. Men were riding at ease, smoking and talking, when, almost unnoticeably, the plain became alive with soldiers. Infantry appeared from nowhere in particular, the cavalry seemed suddenly to have increased considerably in numbers and to be massing as if for a charge, and before we realised it, we were unlimbering the guns and the horses were struggling through the mud back to the waggon-lines. In a few seconds the roar of an explosion proclaimed that the guns were firing their first shots against an enemy, and presently over the waggon-lines came a persistent whining sound indicating that the enemy had a few remarks to make on his own account.
The Senussi of course had the advantage of ground, but fortunately for us they had only light field-pieces which did little damage. They made astonishingly good use of their machine-guns, however, and soon had the cavalry, who had made an impetuous charge, in difficulties. So serious did the situation become that a gun had to be swung round—and extremely difficult it was to move in the mud—until it was almost at right angles with its fellow, in order to prevent our being surrounded. For some hours the Senussi made desperate attempts to outflank us, and both cavalry and infantry suffered considerably, nor did the artillery have much time for rest and reflection, for at one stage in the proceedings they were firing over open sights—and as any artilleryman knows, when that happens the enemy is quite near enough.
It is of course impossible for one to describe an action like this in detail or say exactly when the turning-point came. There was the general impression of the infantry at long last heaving themselves out of the mud and going forward in real earnest, of the cavalry on the flanks speeding the heels of the retreating Senussi horsemen, and of the artillery firing as fast as they could load at any target they could pick up.
The whole engagement seemed to last only a few minutes, yet the artillery alone had been firing steadily for some five hours. When it was all over we were rather astonished to find ourselves still alive, somewhat dazed with the excitement and noise and with the cantankerous whine of machine-gun bullets still in our ears. A violent desire for a smoke was the first real sensation, but that desire was not destined to be gratified for some time, for our troubles were only just beginning.
The sticky mud had completely beaten the horses and mules, which latter had made a very praiseworthy attempt to stampede earlier in the day, and almost all the vehicles had to be man-handled along. Rain was coming down in a pitiless downpour and we had to face the prospect of a bitterly cold night with neither blankets nor greatcoats, for everything had been left behind to enable us to travel as light as possible. The plight of the wounded was pitiable. There were practically no medical comforts for them, most of the transport being stuck in the mud a considerable distance away.
Some of the slightly wounded men rode on the gun-limbers, others with more serious hurts in such ambulances as had managed to get up, a few on camel-back, while the remainder were actually carried in stretchers by their unwounded comrades. That these men with their heavy loads ever managed to lift their feet out of the mud was a miracle. I do not know what system of reliefs was adopted, but by the time the wounded were safely brought in, a whole battalion must have taken its turn merely to carry its own few casualties.
It was a magnificent example of devotion and dogged fortitude; and withal, the outstanding feature of the whole affair was the incorrigible cheerfulness of everybody, rising superior to all discomforts.
It may be thought that undue prominence has been given to an affair which after all was one in which a few thousands only took part—little more than a skirmish, perhaps, judged by European standards. It has been done partly because this was the first time most of us had been under fire, but chiefly because the battle was so typical of many in the subsequent desert fighting.
As will be seen later, the cumulative effect of these minor victories was out of all proportion to the numbers engaged. Moreover, this particular action again rammed home the lesson that native guerilla troops cannot hope to tackle with success, well-armed, well-disciplined white troops supported by artillery.
Well, we had been blooded—lightly, it is true—and we were ready for the next job. We had learnt one or two lessons, for no one goes into his first action and comes out exactly the same man. He is rather like the good, but young and untried cricketer nervously going in to bat. The bowler looks about seven feet high and the stumps seem absurdly large; but the moment he is in the crease the mist clears away from his eyes and he is ready to set about his business. So it is with war: it is the fear of showing fear that makes many a good man unhappy in his first action; until he finds that he is not there merely to be shot at but to do a little shooting on his own account. After that he has little time to think about himself; he is too busy.
A plethora of fatigues occupied the next few weeks. A column started on a sweeping drive towards Sollum, but for us, beyond dropping a few shells into a native village, there was no further artillery action. Life resolved itself into an affair of G.S. waggons and patrol-duty, which latter chiefly concerned the cavalry.
There were lines of communication to be formed, contact with the railhead at Dabaa to be established and maintained, which meant, amongst other things, a constant carting of telegraph-poles out to unlikely spots in the desert, and dumping them there for "Signals," who immediately decided they would like them taken somewhere else even more remote and inaccessible.
Then, too, we were almost our own A.S.C. In the first place stores had to be brought by boat from Alexandria to Mersa Matruh, and the harassed and long-suffering troops were told off as unloading parties. At rare intervals a consignment of canteen stores would arrive, on which occasions the unloading party would be at the beach bright and early; things get lost so easily.
There were some crates of oranges once....
Two things the authorities at the base never troubled to send: clothes and boots. Apparently they were under the impression that we had taken to troglodytic habits and required none. Almost every man wore a patch; not like the tiny, black ornament worn on the face by ladies in the old Corinthian days, but a large, comprehensive affair more or less securely sewn on the shirt or the seat of one's riding-breeches. The quartermaster-sergeant complained bitterly over a shortage of grain-sacks: the reason for it was walking about before his eyes all day long.
It was dreary work at best, however, with only these uninspiring and never-ending fatigues to occupy our time. Even our little social haven, the canteen, did not stay the urgent need for something more active. The appalling thought came that we had been dumped down in this lonely desolate spot and left there, utterly forgotten, like Kipling's "Lost Legion."
There came a day, however, when our fears were dispelled by an urgent order to trek back to Alexandria. Apparently the war had broken out in a fresh place, and there was work to be done after all. Whatever the reason, there was joy in the camp. Tents were quickly struck and incinerators soon were working double shifts, for it is astonishing how things accumulate, even in the desert. Moreover, the army insists—and rightly—that camps be left clean and free from rubbish.
Rations, forage and water were the chief things to be considered—or rather, the problem of packing them on to limbers and in waggons—for they had to last us to railhead, some days' march away. Officially, once a unit is on the move, it ceases to exist till it reaches the next place on the time-table; and if rations or water are lost in the desert you go hungry, and, worse still, thirsty, for there are no more to be had.
Most of those who took part in it will remember that trek when others are forgotten. Rations were short, forage was short, everything was short, especially the ropes by which the horse-buckets were lowered into the wells; which last remark perhaps needs explanation.
All journeys in the desert are regulated by the distances between wells, which may be twenty, thirty, and sometimes more miles apart. At some of them we found the old-fashioned "shadouf," or native pump, which, clumsy though it was, helped matters considerably.
Usually, however, we had to rely on horse-buckets, and it was any odds that our ropes were too short to reach the surface of the water. The experienced driver would take a rein to the well with him, for lengthening purposes if necessary, but often some unfortunate wight, having found his rope two or three inches too short, would be seen struggling to hold his thirsty horses with one hand while with the other he endeavoured to unfasten his belt to make up the extra inches.
It was a maddening business, this watering the horses. Poor brutes! They would come in after a long day's trek, on short rations, with often a twenty-four hours' thirst to quench, and then have to stand round a well and wait perhaps for hours!
Even the quietest of them began to fidget and strain at their head-ropes the moment they scented the water.
As for the mules, there was simply no holding them. On one occasion—it was after a forty-mile march—a mule, frantic with thirst, broke away from his owner, and in a desperate attempt to get to the water, fell headlong down the well! A crowd of infuriated soldiers, with drag-ropes and everything that wit of man could devise, laboured for hours to get him out, while their comrades, equally infuriated, held anything up to a dozen animals apiece and made strenuous efforts to prevent them from following his deplorable example.
But, if the watering difficulty was the worst of our troubles, the shortage of forage was almost as bad, for the meagre ration of grain was about as satisfying to the horses and mules as Alfred Lester's famous caraway seed was to him.
The mules were the worst; they were insatiable. They ate the head-ropes that fastened them to the horse-lines, and the incensed picket spent half the night chasing them and tying them up again with what was left of the rope. Fortunately we obtained chains at railhead, and as these were uneatable they turned their attention to the horse-blankets and ate them! Soon it was impossible to "rug-up" at night, for there was not enough rug left. We used as pillows the nose-bags containing the following day's grain, and many a time were awakened by a half-famished mule poking an inquisitive muzzle under our heads.
Our own personal worries mainly concerned washing and shaving. Water was much too precious to be used for such purposes, so the problem was easily solved; we did neither. And in any case we had little time. We were up and away before dawn, we trekked anything from twenty-five to thirty-five miles a day, and when we had attended to the needs of the animals and had something to eat and drink ourselves, we were too tired to do anything but roll into the blankets and sleep until a disgruntled picket roused us for another day. Occasionally some sybarite would be seen using the remains of his evening tea as shaving-water and laboriously scraping a three days' growth of hair from his face; but he was the exception. We were a ragged, unwashed, unshaven crew—yet mighty cheery withal.
And so we came to Alexandria, where baths, new clothes and boots, and, best of all, a mail awaited us.
"SOMEWHERE EAST OF SUEZ..."
If you look at the map of Egypt and follow the line of the Suez Canal to its southernmost point, then continue a little down the Eastern shores of the Gulf of Suez, you will see—if the map be a good one—the words "Ayun Musa," which being interpreted mean: "The Wells of Moses."
Now let your finger continue its journey due east, pausing not for mountains nor yet rivers, and it will inevitably arrive at a spot the name of which is variously spelt Nekhl, Nakhl or Nukul.
Concentrate on this for a moment and you will see that in enemy hands it formed a very effective jumping-off place for an attack on the southern terminus of the most important commercial waterway in the world and a vital artery of the British Empire. Moreover, it was very difficult of attack, for it was defended by a range of exceedingly unpleasant and precipitous hills, the passes through which were held by the Turks. Hence the agitation of the authorities and the sudden importance of Ayun Musa as a defensive barrier to Suez.
It was to this lonely spot that we were ordered to proceed with the least possible delay. Having collected all the stores and camp equipment we could lay hands on, and after the usual circus in entraining the horses, we started for Suez. Incidentally, this was the last time we boarded a train as a complete unit for more than two years.
With Suez the last vestige of green was left behind us, and turning south after crossing the canal we entered upon that vast desert trodden by the Israelites thousands of years ago when they fled from the persecuting hand of Pharaoh.
It is to be admitted that we failed to observe, till later, the undoubted grandeur of the scene, for we were mainly concerned with getting our guns and overloaded vehicles along. Time after time they sank almost up to the axle-trees in the heavy sand and time after time did the sweating horses pull them out and struggle on again. One G.S. waggon, laden till it resembled a pantechnicon, was soon in dire straits. Originally starting with a six-horse team it acquired on the journey first one extra pair, then another—with a spare man mounted on each of the off-horses—and finally arrived in camp at the gallop with twelve horses and eight drivers.
Nobody saw anything funny in it. When you are dog-tired, hungry, and, worse still, when you arrive after dark in a new camp, nothing short of a cold chisel can gouge humour out of anything. All you want is a large and satisfying meal, after which your blankets.
In the morning we found that our usual fate had overtaken us: we were again pioneers in a new land. There it was, just our allotted square on the map, as flat and bare as a billiard-table.
Yet the country was not unimpressive. A thousand yards away to our right were the tamarisks of Moses' Grove, the only spot of verdure in sight; far in our rear and to our left ran range upon range of low, even-topped hills of unimaginable barrenness, the approach to which lay over a vast plain, broken by innumerable smaller hills, grand in its utter desolation; and in front of us stretched a level, shimmering expanse of sand as far as the silvery ribbon of the Gulf of Suez, beyond which, and dominating the whole scene, the gaunt, black mass of Gebel Atakah (Mountain of Deliverance) thrust its mighty pinnacle into the sky.
Such was the place destined to be our home for six torrid months; and we had to transform it into a fortified camp! Small wonder that we quailed at the prospect of work more punishing than any we had yet known, for literally everything had to be done; we had what we managed to bring with us, and that was all.
There followed days of unremitting toil. We turned our attention to road-making and with bowed backs and blistered hands shovelled up half the desert and put it down somewhere else; the other half we put into sandbags and made gun pits of them. We dug places for the artificers, kitchens for the cooks, walled-in places for forage, and but for the timely arrival of a battalion of Indian infantry we should have dug the trenches round the camp; we were mercifully spared that, however.
By way of a change we dug holes: big holes, little holes, round holes, square holes, rectangular holes; holes for refuse; wide, deep holes for washing-pits; every kind of hole you can think of and many you can't.
We never discovered for what purpose most of these holes were dug, but we dug them; and as a special treat we were allowed to dig an extra big hole, lined and roofed with sandbags, wherein to hide two hundred thousand rounds of S.A. ammunition lest the Turks in a moment of aberration should drop a bomb on it. All this in a temperature of over 100 deg. in the shade at nine o'clock in the morning!
For summer was leaping towards us with giant strides, and it was one the like of which Egypt had not known for seventy-five years. Day by day the sun waxed stronger until work became a torture unspeakable and hardly to be borne. With the slightest exertion the perspiration ran in rivulets from face and finger-tips; clothes became saturated and clung like a glove to our dripping bodies; and if a man stood for a time in one place the sand around was sodden with his sweat.
Then, too, we had the usual difficulty about drinking water, for there was none in the camp. The Wells of Moses, twelve in number, were brackish and only fit for the horses.
Consequently every drop had to be brought from the Quarantine Station, three miles away, on the shores of the Gulf of Suez; and twice daily did the water-cart plough a laborious way through the sand. I think it was the very worst water we ever had, all but undrinkable, in fact. It was so heavily chlorinated and nauseous that one drank it as medicine. It tasted the tea, it spoilt the lime-juice, and even the onions failed to disguise it in the daily stew.
Fortunately there was washing-water in abundance, as we quickly discovered in our digging operations. Two or three feet down the sand was quite moist, and if the hole was left for a time, brackish water percolated through in sufficient quantities for a bath. It was the daily custom, after evening-stables, to rush across to the washing-pits, peel off our saturated clothes and stand in pairs, back to back, while a comrade poured bucket after bucket of water over our perspiring bodies until we were cool enough to put on a change of clothes.
And how we revelled in it! It was one of the few alleviations of those torrid, arduous days. You who dwell in temperate climes, with water—hot and cold—at a hand's turn, will perhaps accuse me of labouring the point. I cannot help it; no words of mine can express what it meant to have that clean feeling just for an hour or two. It was ineffable luxury; it helped us to endure.
For there were other things to add to our daily burden.
You will doubtless remember the Plagues of Egypt.... At least three of these survived at Ayun Musa to harass, thousands of years later, unfortunate soldiers who were trying to win a war. We had lice, boils and blains, and flies—particularly and perpetually, flies.
The first-named were not so terrible, for as wood was fairly plentiful we soon made rough beds and thus kept our clothes and blankets off the sand.
The second and third caused the medical authorities in the East more trouble and anxious experiment than all the other diseases put together.
The slightest scratch turned septic. It was the rule rather than the exception for units in the desert to have 50 per cent. of their strength under treatment for septic sores. There was no help for it; active service is a messy business at best. It was appallingly difficult to give adequate treatment. Sand would get into the wound; if it were cleansed and covered up, the dry, healing air of the desert had no chance; if it were left open the flies made a bivouac of it—and the result can be imagined!
There were men who were never without a bandage on some part of their person for months on end, and it was a common sight to see a man going about his daily work literally swathed in bandages. It was not until we had advanced well into Palestine, where there was fruit in abundance, that this plague diminished and was in some measure overcome.
But infinitely worse than any other was the plague of flies. When we arrived at Ayun Musa there was not a fly to be seen. Within a week you would have thought that all the flies in the universe had congregated about us. They were everywhere. Did you leave your tea uncovered for a minute the flies around you hastened to drown themselves in it! And as for jam! Successfully to eat a slice of bread and jam was a feat, and one requiring careful preparation. You had to make a tunnel of one hand, wave the required mouthful about with the other for a few seconds in order to disturb the flies on it, then pass it quickly through the tunnel and into the mouth before they could settle again. One man nailed a piece of mosquito-netting to the front of the mess table and with himself as the pole made a kind of tent, so as to eat his food in comfort.
But meal-times were among the minor evils; it was in the tents, during the hours when we could do no work, that we suffered most. Rest was impossible. The mere touch of clothing was almost unbearable in the heat, but it was better to swathe the head in a fly-net and roll a blanket round the outlying portions of the body, than to strip to the buff and lie exposed to the attacks of those damnable flies.
It is no light thing that sends a strong man into hysterics or drives one sobbing from his tent, to rush about the camp in a frenzy of wild rage. Yet the flies did this—and more; they were carriers of disease. Behind the clouds of flies lurked always the grim spectre of dysentery; and of all our troubles perhaps this is the best known to the people at home. The Mesopotamian Commission ventilated it so thoroughly that there is no need to pile on the agony here. One may say, however, that the sufferings of the men in Egypt from this terrible disease were, certainly in somewhat less degree, those of their comrades farther east. And we will let it go at that.
Meanwhile, what of the Turks? During the six weeks we spent putting the camp into a state of defence they kindly refrained from annoying us, and beyond an occasional encounter with our patrols and a false alarm or two, nothing occurred to disturb the even tenor of our digging. When we had finished this strenuous pursuit, every ten days or so flying columns were organised to look for them and, if possible, drive them out of their rocky fastnesses thirty miles away.
One of the few vulnerable points in these hills was the Raha Pass and incredibly difficult it was even to approach. The joys of trekking over the sandy desert we knew, the desert in the rainy season we knew, but they were as nothing compared with the rocky desert of Sinai. Not only was there the deep sand to contend with but one had to climb hills and descend valleys covered with huge boulders. It was a creditable feat merely to get over the ground at all; manoeuvring was out of the question.
An eight-horse team could with difficulty pull a gun and its limber over fairly level ground; frequently twelve horses were required and sometimes as many as sixteen! And it was really wonderful to see them intelligently thrusting all their weight on the breast-collars, heaving and straining to get their load over a nasty place. These were the days, too, when the heat whipped off the rocks in waves and the sun's rays beat upon the back like strokes from a flail; when it was impossible to march during the noontide hours and one crawled under the limbers for shelter; and when a man looked longingly at his water-bottle, even though the water therein was almost boiling.
For the most part these flying columns drew blank. Rarely did the Turks and their Bedouin allies come out and fight, but confined themselves to sniping and harassing our cavalry-patrols at night. Every day these would return to camp bearing the body of a comrade, killed without seeing the hand that killed him; and once, saddest of all, two riderless horses, famished and almost mad with thirst, dashed up to the watering-troughs in camp. Their riders were never found.
We had to wait long weeks before our chance came. (Even then it came only just in time, for we left Ayun Musa for good the following day.)
It was rather a curious affair. The solution to the whole question lay in our being able to get the guns to the top of a certain hill commanding the Raha Pass. If this could be accomplished things would be very warm indeed for the people in the Pass.
It took twenty-six horses to pull the gun to the top of that hill! The rest was easy; almost too easy. The Turks had no heavy artillery, so we sat about in the open smoking and watching our guns shell them out of their holes into the arms of the Indian infantry, who went forward with a pleased smile to receive them.
But the urgent need in those days of the army in the East was aircraft; fast, modern machines, that is. There was a lamentable lack of anything that could go near the Fokker or Taube; the men were willing, but the machines were woefully weak. Almost with impunity the Turks came over and bombed the camps in the area; the one at El Shatt always received particular attention, possibly on account of its proximity to Suez, more probably because it was the largest and most strongly-fortified camp in the vicinity. Suez itself was attacked many times, as might have been expected, both on account of its immense oil-tanks and its position as the southern entrance to the Canal. Curiously enough, Turkish aircraft never troubled us much at Ayun Musa, though of course there was the usual "wind-up."
As a start we were ordered to convert our eighteen pounders into anti-aircraft guns. This meant digging pits with a weird kind of platform in the middle; this was for the reception of the gun-wheels alone. The trail was thus left free, which enabled the gun to be tilted sufficiently for high-angle fire. We never did fire at any aircraft from these pits; they looked very nice, however.
Nor did this finish the business. About this time the word "camouflage" appeared in the East and curiously enough, synchronising with its arrival, the mandate went forth that our tents were to be camouflaged. Now the army is a very wonderful place for teaching one to make bricks without straw, but if the other materials are lacking——?
Matters were at a deadlock till a bright lad suggested that there might be a little desert-scrub about if we looked for it. He was quite right; there was a little, a very little. About one bush to the half-mile was the average, and usually under a boulder at that. Every morning we rode forth and scoured the desert for that elusive scrub. As we had, by the process known in the army as "wangling," acquired sufficient tents and marquees for a battalion, there was a large quantity to find. Ultimately, after weeks of searching, we obtained enough, and to stimulate keenness, a prize was then offered for the best camouflaged tent. The winners' was really a very beautiful affair, but apparently the honour—or the scrub—was too much for the tent, for it collapsed during the night.
Shortly after this we had a further insight into the infinite possibilities of the desert. For a fortnight it had been intolerably hot, and rarely was the noon temperature below 120 deg. in the shade. No work was done between the hours of 10 a.m. and 5 p.m., except at midday when the horses were watered and fed; and we loathed the whistle that summoned us from our tents into the blinding sunlight to perform this duty, necessary though we knew it to be. We literally prayed for the night and the cool breeze from the sea. The Mountain of Deliverance was in truth a symbol to us; for as we watched the sun sink slowly behind its sheltering bulk we knew that another day was done. We wondered wearily what this devastating heat could mean; it was like nothing in our experience.
One evening the whole sky was aflame with lurid light and we missed the revivifying breeze. In its place came a hot wind from the south-east, and although the sun was setting we could feel the sickly heat increasing momentarily. Presently, far over the eastern desert could be seen a gauzy cloud of immense size travelling towards us at a tremendous pace. In a few moments we were in the midst of an inferno of swirling sand and suffocating heat. It was the dreaded khamseen.
Men rushed blindly for their tents and swathed their heads in shirts or blankets in order to keep out as well as might be the flying particles of sand. Fortunately for us the high embankment in our rear protected the camp to some extent and we never got the full force of the sandstorm.
For three days it raged. Little work was possible beyond watering and feeding the horses. The short walk from the horse-lines to the watering-troughs was sheer torment, for the hot wind came down the slope like blasts from a furnace. It did literally turn the stomach. Many a man staggering blindly along with his three or four horses would pause, vomit violently and carry on. The horses neither drank nor ate much, poor brutes, but all day long stood dejectedly with drooping heads, their backs turned to the scorching wind. It was a scarifying experience. When, on the evening of the third day, the familiar wind came up from the sea we had the feeling one has on coming out of a Turkish bath into the cooling-chamber.
Another welcome tonic was the news that the brigade was ordered to Salonica. We felt that any change would be for the better; in any case it could not well be worse. And so we fell to making our preparations with light hearts, confident that in a few days we should be on the move again, perhaps—who could say?—towards a real war.
At the last moment a wire came cancelling the move. The disappointment was so bitter that it knocked all the life out of us for days. We felt like a boxer who, after a knock-down blow, rises at the count of nine, say, and is at once sent down again for good. The knock-out blow was that in our case the rest of the brigade did actually leave the camp, in addition to which the Indian infantry who had lain alongside us also went elsewhere. We felt thoroughly aggrieved.
I suppose every unit at some time or other during a period of enforced stagnation has had this grievance. Nobody loves you. You feel that some one in the high places has a grudge against you. You can hear him saying to his underlings: "Let me see. So-and-so is a pretty rotten camp, isn't it? I'll keep this battalion or that squadron or the other battery there. Do 'em good. Mustn't coddle 'em." And you are kept "there" for weary months.
Most of us knew that the conditions in Salonica were as bad as, if not worse than, those obtaining in Egypt, so why on earth were we pining to go there? There is no prize for the answer, but I suspect it was the eternal desire for a change, of whatever nature. Besides, except for the heat, flies, septic sores, the khamseen, bad water, dysentery, vaccination, inoculations many and various, digging holes, and a depressing sameness about the scenery, we had, according to some, little to grumble at.
We were not unduly harassed by the Turks; indeed, it was our function to harass them. We slept peacefully in our beds o' nights except for a pernicious system of false alarms. We had now a metre-gauge line on which our forage was brought into camp, thus saving us a fatigue. Moreover, on this line we could take an occasional joy-ride in a tram like an Irish jaunting-car, drawn by two mules probably also of Irish descent, who invariably ran away with the tram, and, desiring later to rest awhile, were as invariably thrust forward again by the violent impact from behind of the oncoming vehicle.
We had a very passable canteen with sometimes real beer in it. And above and beyond all these joys we had recently made an ice-chest. True, we were dependent upon a somewhat fortuitous supply of ice, brought by boat across the Gulf from Suez to the Quarantine Station, thence by special fatigue-party, armed to the teeth, into camp; and it usually suffered considerably en route. But think of a long, really cold drink waiting for you at the end of a three-days' stunt into those iniquitous hills, when you came in covered with sand and with a throat like a dust-bin! Half of it went at a gulp to wash the sand down; the rest one drank slowly and with infinite content. That ice-chest had the prestige of a joss.
Looking back, however, on the summer of 1916 and taking count, as it were, of the things that amused us and helped us to carry on, I find that we were for the most part self-supporting. To the best of my recollection, except for visits of inspection by the Great Ones, which of course do not count, there were only two occasions when we had strangers within our gates.
The first was when the navy, some forty strong, in high spirits and a G.S. waggon, came to cheer us up.
And here I should like to ask why it is that the moment the sailorman is ashore he goes forth and looks for a horse, quite regardless as to whether he has ever put a leg across one before or no. For them, too, a horse has but one pace: a full-stretch gallop. It took hours to catch all the riderless horses after the navy had started for their gentle exercise, but we got heaps of fun out of it and it was very good to see somebody from the outside world.
The other time was when we had a concert in Moses' Grove and a regimental band came from El Shatt to entertain us. It was fine to sit there under the tamarisks around an immense camp-fire and listen to a really good band playing the old favourites again and giving us a few new ones, to be whistled or sung about the camp for weeks.
The mail, of course, kept us happy where nothing else could, for not only was it the single link with home and all that it meant, but it brought us newspapers which, while carefully avoiding all reference to the armies in the East, did tell us of the war as they waged it in France. Also, it introduced Bairnsfather to us. "The Better 'Ole" became almost an institution; we could speak with authority on "'oles." And "When the 'ell's it goin' to be strawberry?" was the unfailing jest at meal-times, as we scraped the layer of flies from the top of the inevitable Tickler.
No doubt these things will strike you as trivial. Quite so. But when you remember our complete isolation, that for six months we saw no one but ourselves, so to speak, you will understand that if one did not laugh at trivial things one simply did not laugh at all—and in the desert that way madness lies.
For there were days when one hated the sight of one's best friend, when the mere sameness of everything drove one almost to distraction, and when the heat and the little exasperations of our daily work kept the temper constantly on edge. One had to laugh at something; it was the only way to keep sane. So, if there should occasionally creep into these pages a somewhat frivolous tone, I crave your indulgence, for it was truly the atmosphere in which we, in common with other lonely outposts, lived and worked. It was fatal to take life too seriously; wherefore, as we had little else to laugh at, we laughed at ourselves.
But to all things an end. The weary time of waiting and preparation was almost over. Sparse news filtered through that the northward advance towards Palestine had already begun; that there had been heavy fighting at Katia, where the Turks, under cover of a desert mist, surprised and cut up—but failed to defeat—our cavalry; and that we had at Romani inflicted the most summary defeat on the enemy since he made his abortive attack on the Canal in 1915.
All of which, said the wiseacres, seemed to point in one direction; that all the available troops would very soon be required for the more considerable business at the northern end of the desert; in other words, that we should shortly be on the move again. And for once the prophets were right, for suddenly there was a great to-do in the camp; such a polishing of guns and a burnishing of stirrup-irons and bits and chains, such a cleaning of harness and saddlery as had never been known.
When it was done one of the elect came down and inspected us, after which we went out into the desert beyond and fired at targets the ranges of which had been carefully taken days before, so as not to disappoint the great man by bad shooting. Whereupon, when he had expressed himself satisfied with the accuracy of our fire and the smartness of our drill, he went away; and presently came others, still more elect, for whom there was more cleaning and burnishing, and who further declared their entire approval. Finally the Commander-in-Chief himself came and inspected all the troops in the area; and the work was as before, only more so. Now, when he too was pleased, we knew that a move was what the Americans call a "cinch." And so it proved. To wind up with a flourish, as it were, we went out to the hills again for a last—and, as it happened, most successful—attempt on the Raha Pass, when we climbed the hill mentioned earlier in this chapter.
Marching orders were awaiting us on our return. We were to trek to El Kubri, a post on the Canal near Suez, there to await train accommodation. This time the orders were not cancelled.
ON 'UNTIN'—AND SOME OTHER MATTERS
Having got us to El Kubri and told us to wait for a train, the authorities apparently washed their hands of the whole affair and forgot all about us. For six weeks we waited at a siding which seemed to be ashamed to look a train in the face. Certainly we never saw one approach it, and we kept a careful look-out for fear we should miss one.
On our arrival we did not, of course, make a camp, believing that we should entrain in a day or two at most. But as day followed day and no train appeared we began to think that this was a joke in deplorable taste. Why, after working for six months like niggers are supposed to work making a comfortable camp, should we be taken therefrom, dumped down on an inhospitable siding and forgotten? It was not playing the game; and a sinister rumour spread that we were not going north after all but were to be sent down the Red Sea to the assistance of the Cherif of Mecca, who was having a little war on his own account.
We knew what that meant. The assisting force would be sent to some evil-smelling native town with an unpronounceable name, miles from anywhere, left there to garrison the place and impress the inhabitants with the might of British arms, while the Cherif and his wild horsemen charged about the desert firing rifles in the air and emitting extraordinary yells to frighten away the few stray, half-starved Turks in the vicinity. And the prospect of travelling in a horse-boat down the Red Sea, even in November, did not appeal to us in the least. However, tired of sleeping in culverts and disused drains we pitched our camp on the top of a plateau overlooking the Canal and prepared to await developments.
It was not unpleasant waiting, for there was the daily bathe in the Canal, and the big ships and liners passing up and down seemed to bring us once more in touch with civilisation. It used to be the kindly practice of the passengers to throw tins of cigarettes and tobacco overboard whenever the boat passed one of the numerous outposts guarding the Canal. It was quite an ordinary occurrence for a man to dive in with all his clothes on and swim after the coveted tins. Tobacco was so scarce that a mere wetting was nothing; besides, our clothes were dry in an hour.
Also, we hunted the fox—or rather, jackal.
Now the Egyptian native undoubtedly looks on the British soldier as "magnoon," afflicted of Allah, to be treated kindly, but to be relieved of as much of his hard-earned pay as possible. And further, if the Faithful are able to obtain something for nothing from these amiable madmen, it is to be done. So we made ourselves popular with the fellaheen by hunting jackals, which had the same predilection for other people's chickens as has brother fox in England.
We had no hounds, except a fox-terrier who was too fat to run; only our horses and our prodigious enthusiasm. The method of procedure was to assemble the hunt near a likely place and send forward a fatigue-party to dig out the jackal. When he appeared—and he usually did appear in a hurry—we gave him a couple of minutes' start and then tally-ho! and away after him over the plain. We had, of course, no fences to leap, but there were deep nullahs and irrigation dykes wide enough to give one something to think about. Moreover, the jackals were astonishingly speedy; they would twist and turn and double on their tracks for half an hour at a stretch, and they were game to the end.
Christmas came and was made endurable and even enjoyable by the kindness of the Y.M.C.A., who lent us tables, yea and cloths, in addition to other things.
But the outstanding event of this period of waiting was the visit of one of Miss Lena Ashwell's concert parties to El Kubri. It will ever remain a fragrant memory, for it was the first time we had seen English ladies for nearly a year and it brought home very near to hear them sing.
They gave their concert in a specially constructed "hall" in the desert. Sandbags were the mainstay of the platform and a large tarpaulin, G.S., formed the drop-scene. The walls were of rough canvas, upon which it was inadvisable to lean, lest the whole structure collapsed. Primitive, no doubt, but it suited the environment; and I have never seen in the most elaborate West-end theatre anything like the enthusiasm here.
You called for a popular song or recitation and you got it, and as many more as you liked to ask for. One of these talented ladies used to give a recitation which became a permanent feature of her programme in Egypt. She would come to the front of the stage and say confidentially to the audience, "Do you know Lizzie 'Arris?" And back would come a mighty bellow, "Aiwa!" This rite was always insisted upon before the artiste could proceed, though she obviously enjoyed it almost as much as we did. She might probably be amused to know that—such is fame!—amongst the thousands of troops who heard her recite she was always known as "Lizzie 'Arris."
Early in the New Year the Mecca myth was finally dissipated, for we moved—no, the train never arrived—to the big concentration camp at Suez, and there started preparations in real earnest. It was strange to be amongst people again after so many months of comparative solitude, and stranger still to see houses and streets and civilians. Not that we had much time to look around, for with the coming of the cool weather the hours of work became appreciably longer.
Every day long columns of infantry went forth to get themselves into hard condition by strenuous route marches. Dotted about the camp were little groups of specialists and others practising their several trades. Here was a bombing-school urgently killing imaginary Turks; there a squad of bayonet-fighters engaged in the same pleasurable pursuit; while farther away an eager band of signallers with their handy little cable-waggons laid a wire at incredible speed.
Away out on the plain a string of harassed recruits trotted round a rough manege lustily encouraged to a rigid observance of the good old maxim, "'eels an' 'ands low; 'eads an' 'earts 'igh," by the astonishing profanity of their riding-master; and beyond them their more proficient comrades charged with wild yells upon a long line of stuffed sacks representing a terror-stricken foe waiting patiently to be spitted.
Hard by these perspiring cavalrymen a battery of horse-artillery struggled to master the intricacies of driving with fourteen-horse teams. These were arranged in three rows of four abreast with one pair in lead, while of the drivers three rode the near-horses and three the off-horses, with one driver riding the near-horse of the leading-pair; a complicated business requiring much skill and nicety of judgment in order to get the best out of the horses.
Occasionally an apparently wild chaos of guns and limbers and horses proclaimed that the battery had been successfully brought into action; usually, however, the work was confined to getting the vehicles along under these novel conditions. Alongside our own, French artillery with their natty little "75's" daily strove to put the finishing touches to their preparation.
It was to the confines of the camp that one went for the final signs that a "show" was surely preparing, for here were all the dumps of material which was to minister to the needs of an army in the field.
Sacks of grain and bales of tibbin stood in huge pyramidal mounds; multitudinous rows of boxes containing bully-beef, condensed milk, dried fruit, biscuits, cocoa, and tea, seemed to stretch for miles. One walked down streets of bully-beef, as it were; loitered in squares bounded by biscuit-tins; dodged up alleys flanked by tea-chests and cases of "Ideal" milk. Through the streets and squares came an endless procession of lorries and G.S. waggons, passing on their lawful occasions.
After all, the final word rests with the A.S.C. All your preparation, all your study of new methods, all your concentrations of guns and men and horses are futile—and how futile!—if the Army Service Corps says: "Sorry, gentlemen, but we can't feed you; and if we could, there's nothing to carry the food in." In the beginning this was especially true of Egypt; for there was a lamentable shortage of nearly everything that goes to the successful waging of war. It took nearly two years of patient endeavour before an advance could really be considered, and by far the greater part of that time was devoted to amassing supplies and organising means of transport. It was a colossal task, the magnitude of which was never even imagined by the people at home.
There was practically nothing in the country. We wanted sleepers, rails, and locomotives for the railway; pipes, pumps, and other materials for the water-supply; waggons, motor-lorries and light-cars for transport purposes; sand-carts, cacolets, and ambulances for the R.A.M.C.; and, with the exception of most kinds of vegetables, food.
All this had to be brought overseas.
There may not at first sight seem to be any striking connection between an enemy submarine and the date of an offensive. When, however, that submarine torpedoes and sinks a vessel containing two million pounds' worth of absolutely essential material, such as locomotives or motor-lorries, the connection becomes less, as the date of an offensive becomes more, remote. In fact, as neither a locomotive nor a motor-lorry, nor a boat wherein to carry them can be built in five minutes, the offensive temporarily recedes from view, until the next boatload of material is safely landed.
Add to this the facts that a hundred and fifty miles of desert had to be cleared of an enemy who fought with the most bitter determination all the way, that a railway had to be constructed, and an adequate water-supply had to be maintained over the same desert, before an offensive on a large scale could even be dreamt about, and the connection mentioned above becomes strikingly obvious.
Those people at home who, from time to time, asked querulously, "What are we doing in Egypt?" should have seen Kantara in 1915, and then again towards the end of 1916. Failing that I would ask them, and also those kindly but myopic souls who said: "What a picnic you are having in Egypt!" to journey awhile with us through Kantara and across the desert of Northern Sinai. For the former there will be a convincing answer to their query; the latter will have an opportunity of revising their notions as to what really constitutes a picnic.
And we will start now, while the scent is hot, for already the infantry have begun their march and guns and waggons are rumbling along the roads from Suez to Kantara, the gate of the desert.
KANTARA AND THE RAILWAY
At this point it would be as well to confer with the map once more. Be pleased to imagine that we have trekked northwards from Suez, through the beautiful little town of Ismailia, "the emerald of the desert," thence to Ferry Post, which was a position of considerable importance when the Turks attacked the Canal in February 1915, and finally to Kantara, where we will pause to see if an answer can be found to the query propounded in the preceding chapter.
If our inquiring friends had sailed down the Canal in 1915 they would have seen at Kantara—had they noticed the place at all, which is unlikely—a cluster of tents, a few rows of horse-lines, some camels, a white-walled mosque, and a water-tank close to the water's edge; while their nostrils would have been pungently assailed by the acrid smell of burning camel-dung.
It is at least probable that the last-named would have made the most striking impression. (It is still a powerful characteristic of Kantara.) Certainly they would never have guessed from its appearance what Kantara was destined to become: the terminus of the great military railway running across the desert and through Palestine, a military port of the utmost value, the beginning—or end—of the main road into Palestine, and the biggest base in Egypt.
They are to be excused; no one would. Kantara did not unduly lift its head in those days, and one did not, perhaps, at a first glance fully appreciate its unique geographical position; for it is situated within easy reach of Port Said and Suez, the two great termini of the Canal, and is thus conveniently near the sea.
Moreover, the Turks were only some fourteen miles away, and the time was not yet ripe. It is illustrative of our early limitations that our postal designation was "Mediterranean Expeditionary Force, Canal Defences." Note that no idea was then entertained of anything beyond defending the great waterway.
Nothing else could be done. We had simply to hold off the Turks and make shift as best we could, meanwhile collecting materials and making preparations for a definite offensive when the psychological moment arrived.
Originally the troops were on the west bank, near the station, which is on the State Railway from Port Said to Cairo and Alexandria, until some one high in authority suggested that as we were supposed to be defending the Canal, and not the Canal defending us, it would be as well to move over to the other side. The fact is, this would have been done much sooner had it not been that the Turkish attack in February caused what is called a vertical draught in political circles in Egypt, and it needed a very great man indeed to order the move.
We were still dependent on Port Said for rations and supplies, while all the water was brought up from the same place by boat and stored in the big tank. The means of communication between the east and west banks were somewhat primitive. At Kantara a pontoon bridge and a decrepit chain ferry of uncertain moods maintained irregular intercourse with the other side. It used to be one of our diversions to watch the ferry bringing across the daily ration-waggon, whereof the horses, frightened by the clank of the chains, frequently bolted the moment the "door" of the ferry was lowered. To the right, in the direction of the camp, was a particularly nasty incline, so the waggon usually decided to go to the left through the lines of the Bikanir Camel Corps; whereupon the horses, having an unconquerable aversion to camels, at once stampeded, and our rations were in dire jeopardy. There were, too, a few rowing-boats for passengers, but these were either on the other side when you wanted them or were too full of holes to use.
Patrol-duty and spy-hunting were our principal occupations, as in most of the other Canal stations; certainly few dreamed of the greatness in store.
It was not until the spring of 1916 that Kantara dropped its mantle of obscurity and began to take its place as our principal base of operations. From then onwards the place hummed with ever-increasing activity, for the danger of a further attempt on the Canal was now somewhat remote, and work could be carried on in comparative safety.
One day, perhaps, a scribe will rise up and write of the doings of the Royal Engineers in this war, more particularly of their deeds in such places as Salonica, Mesopotamia, East Africa, and Egypt; where, in addition to the usual shortage of tools and material, they had to wrestle with every conceivable kind of geographical obstacle that a bountiful Nature could place in their way. The present scribe can only write of what they did in Egypt and Palestine, and not half of that can be told.
As far as Kantara is concerned they came, they saw, they conquered. What they saw was a desert which they proceeded to transform into a city, certainly of tents and huts, but "replete with every convenience"—as the house-agents say. As a start they pensioned off the aged chain ferry into decent retirement and built a goodly swing bridge, over which were brought timber to be cut into beams and joists; nuts and bolts and screws, and an olla podrida of materials.
When this was done a gentleman called the Assistant Director of Works came and made a plan of the city. Here a difficulty arose. In this climate a white man has his limitations, and one of them is that hard manual labour when the sun is summer-high is exhausting in the extreme, and is, moreover, explicitly forbidden between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. by the authorities.
It was then that the voice of the Egyptian Labour Corps was heard in the land. Little is known outside the country of this admirable corps, yet it is scarcely too much to say that they saved the situation here as elsewhere. Recruited from almost every class of the native community, from the towns and cities, from the Delta, from their "belods" in the far-off Soudan, they came in thousands to dig and delve, to fetch and carry, to do a hundred things impossible for a white man to do in that climate. It is difficult to over-estimate their usefulness; though not as a rule big men, they would carry for considerable distances weights that a far bigger white man failed even to lift.
Their staple diet consisted of bread, onions, lentils, rice, dates, and oil—with perhaps a little meat after sunset. They drank prodigious quantities of water, and could not in fact go for long without. Firmly but fairly treated by their British officers and non-commissioned officers, they went anywhere and did anything; and wherever you found the sappers, there, too, you would see the khaki galabeahs and hear the eternal chant: "Kam leila, kam yom?" of the E.L.C. Under their hands Kantara took shape.
Supervised and directed by the Engineers, gangs of them made roads, workmanlike affairs calculated to stand the strain shortly to be imposed on them by the daily passage of thousands of lorries and waggons. Eastward from the Canal what had been a mere track, fetlock deep in sand, became a broad road macadamised for ten kilos, from which radiated similar roads in all directions, and on which abutted presently the great camps that seemed to spring up like mushrooms in a night.
Alongside the roads other gangs laid watermains connected directly with Port Said, for it soon became utterly impossible to bring an adequate daily supply of water by boat. At certain points stand-pipes were erected so that working-parties and other troops could fill their water-bottles without having to go far to do so; in the hot weather every extra yard tells.
This was the beginning of the pipe-line laid stage by stage as the army advanced, across the desert and far into Palestine. We shall see more of it later.
Then the A.D.W. collected his carpenters and bricklayers and bade them instruct their dusky labourers in the building of gigantic mess-huts, in size and shape not unlike a hangar, capable of providing meal accommodation for hundreds of men at a time; ration and store-huts for the numerous camps; brick enclosures for the kitchens; incinerators, and a thousand and one things necessary for the troops.
It was a liberal education to watch a British N.C.O. working with the gang of natives under his command. Usually his entire vocabulary of Arabic consisted of about ten words, of which the following are a fair sample:—
Aiwa—Yes. La—No. Quais—Good. Mush quais—No good. Igri!—Quickly! Imshi!—Clear out! Ta-ala henna—Come here.
With these, comically interpolated with English expletives, he performed marvels, from stone-breaking to bridge-building.
Presumably he gave his instruction by some process of thought-transmission, an art that seems peculiarly suited to the genius of the British soldier. "Quais!" he would say, when a man had done a job to his liking, and the man's comrades crowded round carefully to examine the work, after which they went away and copied it faithfully. If on the other hand, the man failed to do what was required of him, there would be an aggrieved bellow of: "La! Mush quais!" and the perspiring native would get down to it once more, while the others charged up again to see what in future to avoid. Moreover, whatever mistakes they made subsequently it was rarely that one.
"Igri, Johnny!" or alternatively and more forcibly, "Get a bloomin' igri on, Johnny!" was the favourite ejaculation of an N.C.O. when he wanted to cure that tired feeling peculiar to the Egyptian native. (All natives answer to the name of Johnny, by the way.)
"Imshi!" was the N.C.O.'s great word, however; he used it on all occasions implying a departure from his presence; when a man's face displeased him, for instance, and when he dismissed them for the day. They made a weird combination, these two, the dominant white man and the dusky native; but they built Kantara—and a few other places.
As the camp grew and grew so also did its needs. The Army Service Corps arrived in force and demanded for themselves a great depot, covering many acres, which was to be the Main Supply of the army advancing into Palestine. Materials and stores could not now be brought in sufficient quantities by the State railway on the other bank, and the traffic over the Canal bridges was becoming increasingly heavy. Accordingly the engineers found another outlet for their energies: they created a fleet!
Jetties and wharves were built on the east bank, and to them came presently numbers of strange vessels, broad in the beam like a barge, and with monstrous lateen sails that looked too unwieldy to be furled or set; and on their bows they bore the painted letters "I.W.T., R.E." and a numeral. They were native feluccas, garnered from every canal and waterway in Egypt. They brought grain and fodder for the horses, rations for the men, vegetables of all kinds from the fertile province of Fayoum, stores for the roads; and at Port Said and Suez material from the outside world was trans-shipped on to them for conveyance to Kantara. Loaded almost down to the water's edge they came to the jetties, tied up, emptied, and went away for more. Great wooden warehouses were built to receive the cargoes, and almost daily the number grew until they extended for miles down the Canal bank.
It would appear that the zenith of construction had now been reached, but as it became increasingly evident that the Turks would never again reach the Canal, so it was obvious that something more ambitious must be attempted, if the great advance was to be carried out successfully. For the feluccas were limited by their size to carrying articles of small compass, capable of being unloaded by hand; the larger implements of war were beyond them.
Thus the engineers had to tackle the enormously difficult problem of widening and deepening the Canal sufficiently to allow ocean-going steamers to come close in to the bank and discharge their cargoes directly on to the shore; this would serve the double purpose of time-saving in the transport of material, and lightening the strain on the ports of Alexandria and Port Said, which had borne a heavy burden since the war began.
It was no mean undertaking to make fundamental alterations in a great artery like the Suez Canal. No diminution in the traffic was permissible, since not only ourselves but the larger needs of the troops in France had to be considered. Supplies were being brought from Australia and India in large quantities, and most of the vessels had to pass through the Canal. Thus the alterations had to be carried out while, as it were, the day's work was going on, and it took months of patient toil before the end was in sight. Indeed, I am not sure that the troops were not already in Palestine before the first ocean-going steamer drew up to its berth in the newly-made docks.
What made the business more difficult still was the incredible shortage of skilled labour. Owing to our deplorable predilection in the army for putting square pegs into round holes, there were trained engineers sweeping out mess-huts or carrying stretchers; capable mechanics digging holes or grooming horses; and skilled draughtsmen addressing envelopes and writing: "Passed to you, please, for information and necessary action," on documents referring to the momentous question as to whether No. 54321 Dr. Jones, R.H.A., should have a pair of new breeches at the public expense or pay for them out of his beer-money. All were very necessary tasks, no doubt, but requiring the right men to do them; and the engineers very urgently wanted the right men, too, not merely for making the docks, but for their multifarious activities in the field. In their search for them they went through the army like a scourge.
A trade-testing centre was established at Kantara to which from every unit in the field or at the base came butchers, bakers, miners, moulders, brass-founders, electrical, mechanical, and civil engineers, draughtsmen, men accustomed to all kinds of steel and iron work, and railwaymen. All were tested practically in their respective trades by an expert in that trade, after which they were graded according to their proficiency and knowledge, transferred to the engineers, and sent about their proper business. By this system the cream of the skilled trades was obtained; and there was the double satisfaction that the men were not only working at the jobs for which they were best suited, but were helping materially to win the war.
The scheme went further. As the supply of really skilled men was necessarily somewhat small, and the need great, the apprentices and semi-qualified men were eliminated from other units by the same process of selection, sent to Kantara and given the opportunity of learning more of their trade, being tested from time to time to learn the measure of their progress, until they could take their places amongst the qualified men. Thus a constant supply was more or less assured, and the O.C. of a Field Company of Engineers requiring, say, a fitter or a wheelwright or a moulder, merely asked for them in much the same way as one orders a ton of coal; if the goods, so to speak, were to be had, he got them.
So sedulously were the records of trades kept that the authorities never lost touch of the men, especially of those engaged in intricate or delicate trades. On one occasion a skilled instrument-maker journeyed 1200 miles to Kantara in order to do a job for which he happened to be the only man at the moment available! And similar cases might be multiplied almost indefinitely.
While provision was laboriously being made to fit Kantara for its mission as a great base, means had to be prepared to send forward supplies and material to the army in the desert, now feeling its way towards Romani. One of the delights of the Egyptian campaign was that no sooner was one obstacle overcome than another rose up to bar the way. It was a useful aid to the development of character, no doubt, and at any rate a powerful incentive to the acquirement of a comprehensive vocabulary.
There was this ever-recurring question of transport. Hitherto the bulk of the carrying-work had been done by the much-abused camel, the ideal animal for the job, for he thrives where a horse will starve, and he need not be watered more than once every three days, or even less often, if necessary. His only drawback is his comparative slowness of gait. He can do his steady two and a half miles an hour for ever and ever, but if an army suddenly takes it into its head to advance twenty miles the camel must somehow go with it, and some quicker form of transport must be organised behind to supplement his work.
Thus, born of urgent need, the Railway Operating Division came into being, and set about the construction of a railway. The difficulties at the outset were enormous. Not only was the line required quickly to follow in the wake of the now steadily advancing army, but transport had to be arranged to bring material from the docks to the railway in embryo. Again the camels stepped into the breach, and daily long convoys carrying stones and sleepers and rails went forward into the desert and dropped their loads at places appointed along the proposed route.
Another and more serious trouble was the lack of men; for if the engineers had to scour the army for men to make and organise the water-transport, they had to use a fine comb to get the railwaymen, since only a small percentage had been allowed to enlist in the first place. However, by the aid of the system aforementioned, they got together sufficient to meet the needs of the moment. The bulk of the men had originally been recruited from two of the great English railways, and either by accident or design, probably the latter, the authorities kept the men from each railway in separate companies.
The keenness was terrific. Right from the moment when the railway first thrust its shining tentacles across the desert, there was a competition between the two as to which could lay the longer stretch of line in a day's work. Aided and abetted by the "Camels" and the E.L.C., they progressed at an astonishing pace, and in spite of all drawbacks from sand and the terrible heat, an average rate of one mile of line a day was maintained.
To the uninitiated it may seem that railway-making in the desert is a mere matter of dropping sleepers on to the sand as far as you want to go, bolting the rails on to them, and running non-stop expresses at once. On the contrary, except that no rivers had to be bridged nor tunnels made, laying a line over the desert requires at least as much care and preparation as elsewhere. For if there is one thing certain about this unchanging land, it is that the contours of the desert are eternally changing. The sand is continually silting, and a khamseen may alter the whole surface of the land, yet to the eye it remains substantially the same. It is only when you come to study the desert in terms of the theodolite, so to speak, that you discover its mutability; that which is a hill to-day may be a plain to-morrow.
All this had to be considered in making the railway-bed, which must have a firm foundation of stones and a suitable embankment. To put a mile of line down in a day and maintain that rate is, then, a fairly creditable feat. Each company worked alternate days; sometimes one company would beat the record by a few yards, sometimes the other; there was little to choose between them from the point of view of efficiency.
Here is a story, which I like to think is true, of their intense rivalry and its results.
As the railway was approaching Romani—this was just before the battle—one company laid down a stretch of line beating the previous best by some distance, after which they mentioned the matter casually to their rivals, and retired to rest in the fond belief that they had effectually "put it acrost 'em." Life is full of surprises, however. In the chill hour before dawn the next day a band of soldiers, breathing profanity and determination, crept across the desert to the line, and made an attack on that record. All through the day they toiled, pausing seldom for rest or refreshment, and oblivious to everything but their work. Towards sunset a triumphant shout proclaimed that victory had been won. At about the same moment from the rear came another shout, which had in it nothing of triumph, the shout of a man anxious to do some one grievous bodily hurt.
It was a heated staff-officer who had been sent by the general to know what the dickens they meant by getting in advance of the troops, whether they knew that they were pushing the railway right into the Turkish lines, and whether it was intended for our use or the Turks', etc. etc.
It had apparently taken the staff most of the day to see what was going on, but the facts were none the less correct; for the railwaymen in their enthusiasm had failed to notice anything but their general direction, which was, of course, perfectly accurate; the fact that they had indeed advanced beyond our lines had utterly escaped them! Later, the general is reported to have written praising the keenness of the two companies, but recommending that in future zeal should be tempered with discretion.
Whether the story be true or not is really immaterial, because the incident could quite easily have happened with these railwaymen; it took much to stop them.
Not only here but at Kantara a like activity prevailed. A line was laid running alongside the Canal bank, so that the wharves, and later the docks, were in direct connection with the main line: thus ships and feluccas could be unloaded direct on to a train. From this line also branch lines were made running through the main supply and ordnance depots, again to preserve continuity and save time. A network of sidings was constructed, and soon covered many acres of ground; sheds were built for the locomotives; repairing plant was installed and signalling apparatus erected; handsome stone buildings sprang up as station offices; and, in short, one morning Kantara woke up to find itself the possessor of a railway terminus complete in every essential detail, even down to a buffet for the troops.
Up to the end the engineers were incessantly extending and improving Kantara. In time substantial churches were built alongside Dueidar Road; playing areas were laid out and cinemas erected for the troops; and the Y.M.C.A. built lounges, concert-halls, and tea-rooms. Of these it is not necessary to speak, for they were but the trimmings of the place.
The principal attempt has been to present Kantara as it looked to us when we crossed the bridge that moonlight night in the early spring of 1917: a cluster of feluccas with their great masts bared to the sky; long lines of neat huts fringing the Canal; behind them a vast white city; away to the north the twinkling lights of the railway station; then, when the last gun and the last waggon had rumbled over the bridge, the broad highroad leading eastward to the desert and thence into Palestine.
It seemed a very miracle to us, who had lived there little more than a year before, that so much had been done. Possibly our inquiring friends, had they been riding with us that night, through those five miles of sleeping tents, would have believed the evidence of their own eyes.
If visual testimony were insufficient, let the simple fact be recorded that we had to stop and ask the way!
THE WIRE ROAD
I suppose there is on each of our many battle-fronts at least one familiar road; by which I mean a road traversed regularly of necessity by the many, and remembered afterwards with feelings either of anger, of respect, or of loathing, almost as one regards a human being.
I have heard men who fought in France speak of a certain road between Bapaume and Peronne with a metaphorical lift of the cap; a famous Irish division who came to Egypt from Salonica, utter winged words when they refer to a heart-breaking road in that malaria-stricken hole; and presumably it is the same elsewhere.
We, too, have our road—perhaps the most famous, as it is the oldest, of them all. It is famous not merely in its present aspect, but chiefly for its history, extending almost as far back into antiquity as Time itself, and for its hallowed memories; it has, moreover, seen many, many wars.
It is the great caravan route from Egypt into Palestine. Eastwards from Kantara it runs, across the desert of Northern Sinai to El Arish, thence onwards to Jerusalem and Damascus. Phoenicians, Romans, Moslems, and Jews have traded and fought over it. Napoleon came this way in his hurried dash into Egypt, and here, too, most of his army left their scattered bones. It is hallowed by the journey of Joseph and Mary with the infant Christ, fleeing into Egypt from the wrath of Herod.
Nineteen hundred odd years later the British soldier fought his way eastwards and northwards over the same route on his mission to free the Holy Land from the ambitions of a modern Herod. Almost the sole reason for its existence is the wells. The original road, considered as such, is singularly unimpressive; it is, in fact, little more than a mere track in the desert, when it is visible at all, for the ever-shifting sand obliterates as fast as they are made the imprints of marching feet.
The wells regulate the general direction, as on all the great caravan routes, and also the distance of a day's march. One may be quite certain that the ancients did no unnecessary wandering in the desert, but took the shortest cut from one well to another. Hence, the track follows its milestones, as it were, and not vice versa.
We did the same, and until the laying of the pipe-line rendered the army more or less independent of them, all the marching and fighting in this desert were for the possession of the wells that marked the old-time halting-places. Nowadays, the military road runs alongside the older one.
It is no ponderous affair of logs, or stones, or asphalt; a very simple, homely thing went to its making: just wire-netting, with a two-inch mesh, the kind one uses for the fowl-run! Laid in three rows, and pegged down on to the sand, it is wide enough for infantry comfortably to march four abreast. Simple though it sounds, it is astonishingly effective, and, indeed, the sensation is almost that of walking on a hard, macadamised road.
The cavalry may not use the road, nor the transport, nor the artillery; it is exclusively for the infantry, and deservedly so, for only they, who, carrying a rifle and pack, have trudged along ankle-deep over that blistering desert, know what a relief it is to march for an hour or two on a good road. And further, it is the infantry who bear the heat and burden of the day. All through the summer of 1916—and I have said elsewhere what manner of summer it was—they fought and died that the way might be made clear for those to follow them, and that the engineers could lay the road some of them would never use.
People at home generally are under the impression that there was no fighting in Egypt at all for two years; that the troops there had no difficulties to encounter nor hardships to endure; and that life, in fact, was one grand, sweet song.
Ask the men from Lancashire, or the Scottish Territorial division who came from the horrors of Gallipoli, or the Yeomanry, or the Australian Light Horse, what they think of the song of the Sinai desert, as they heard it in 1916!
I fear that in this matter I am somewhat like Mr. Dick with King Charles' head; yet it is maddening, and indeed most monstrously unfair, that the work of these splendid men should pass unnoticed and unsung. It need hardly be said that I am not complaining on my own behalf. Heaven forbid! At the time the wire road was being made, we were away out East of Suez, digging holes and making other roads, with merely the discomforts peculiar to the place to endure.
But to the pioneers the glory, who conquered both the desert and the Turks. There was none of the pomp and circumstance of war about their work, no great concentration of men and horses and guns, no barrage nor heavy gunfire for days in preparation for an attack, no aircraft—though the ancient buses in use did wonderful work, considering their limitations—nothing but a few thousand men in their shirt sleeves; and it was out of their sweat and blood that the way was made clear for them that followed.
Everywhere and in every respect, save courage and endurance, the enemy held the advantage. During his slow retreat the choice of ground almost invariably lay with him; and the Turk has a nice eye for position, as we found on many occasions bitterly to our cost. Nor did he miss any opportunity of making a surprise attack, as on that black Easter Sunday of 1916, when he crept up and fell upon the Yeomanry at Katia and Oghratina, two cavalry posts east of Kantara. Under cover of a desert mist the Turks crawled past the outposts and fell upon the sleeping men in overwhelming numbers.
Yet even these odds were not too great. Taken completely by surprise as they were, the Yeomanry fought with everything they could lay their hands on: sabres, rifles, bayonets, mallets, pegs, even with bare fists, asking no quarter and with no thought of surrender. They knew that no help could possibly arrive in time, for the Turks attacked simultaneously at both places; yet they fought on with desperate courage until the Turks at length retired, unable to break the gallant little band.
And who now remembers the names of these places, except the relatives of those who fell there, and the few who, fighting, came safely through? They were little affairs of outposts, mere skirmishes, perhaps, but they paved the way for the larger task. And who now speaks of Romani? Yet it was one of the decisive battles of the war. Here the Turks made a magnificently organised attempt to break through our defences and reach the Canal. It was indeed a wonderful feat to bring an army of nearly 30,000 men across a sparsely watered desert, with their nearest railhead a hundred and fifty miles away. We found it difficult enough later with the help of the railway. Not only did they bring an army, but dragged, on sledges, heavy guns up to 8 inches in calibre with them—a very rude shock to our experts, who pronounced it impossible until they saw our observation posts on the summit of Kattigannit literally plastered with heavy shells.
For nearly a fortnight the Turks struggled to get through. First they tried to break down our defences between Romani and the sea. Foiled in this they swung across to the other flank and fought for possession of the chain of hills dominating this region. Mount Royston, Mount Meredith, and the long, whale-backed Wellington Ridge all changed hands at least once, and the last-named became the principal Turkish position, around which a terrible struggle raged for nearly two days.
The infantry and dismounted cavalry advancing to the attack had first to cross a broad stretch of uneven country as bare as the back of the hand, and swept from end to end by machine-guns. They sank over the boot-tops into the sand at every step, they were hampered by their equipment, and the blazing August sun made their rifles almost too hot to hold.
Painfully the long line struggled on, halted a little while and lay down, for human endurance has its limits, then went forward again. So, alternately forcing themselves through the sand, and lying down for very want of breath, the sweating men came to the foot of the ridge, sadly decimated in numbers, but unconquerable in their determination to get to the top.
Now they made a last great effort, and, swearing, sliding, sometimes sinking up to the knees, sometimes crawling, and all the time swept by a murderous fire, these wonderful men reached the redoubt and at length got to grips, only to be thrust back again by the no less determined Turks.
Again they came, a mere handful, and again they were driven back. Now a second wave reached the slope, and with the shattered remnant of the first made a great rush, obtained a footing and kept it. It was sheer hand-to-hand fighting of the fiercest kind; every man marked his man and went for him with the bayonet.
The Turks gave back thrust for thrust; they yielded no ground, but died where they stood. Quarter was neither asked nor given. Men fought in little groups until one or the other was wiped out, when the survivors rushed away and gave a hand elsewhere. And at last victory was to the strong, and Wellington Ridge was won—at a price.
Yet although the capture of the ridge turned their position, the Turks elsewhere retired but slowly, contesting every attempt at an advance with most bitter determination.
All through these scorching days the battle raged, and even the fine work of the cavalry failed to break them, for they knew that with every yard they retreated, their cherished dream of crossing the Canal receded farther and farther. It was not a question of "reculer pour mieux sauter"; the Turks knew that if they were driven out of a position they left it for good; wherefore they fought with the courage of despair. They had to go, however, for nothing human could stand against the inexorable advance of our men.
But the fighting, bloody and desperate though it was, was not the worst of the hardships endured by both victor and vanquished; many things pass unnoticed in the heat of battle. It is afterwards, when the pursuit is spent, and a man thinks of a meal and a drink, that he counts up his hurts. In the fight he has perhaps thrown away his haversack to give himself more freedom of movement, or a chance bullet has pierced his water-bottle; and there he is, miles from anywhere, with neither rations to eat nor water wherewith to slake the thirst that seems to be gnawing his throat away. Nor has he the chance of obtaining more, except from a comrade.
There were small parties of men concerned in the remoter fighting who advanced too far, and when night fell, lost touch with the main body. For forty-eight hours some of them were lost in the desert; water and rations were soon all gone, and they suffered intolerably with the heat. Hunger they could endure, but they were driven to dreadful and unnameable expedients to quench the thirst that consumed them.
When at last they did find their comrades, their tongues and lips were so blackened and swollen that the first drinks had to be given through a straw.
Imagine the plight of the wounded, lying on the slopes of Wellington Ridge and elsewhere, racked with pain, and tortured almost to madness by flies and thirst, exposed for hours to the merciless rays of the sun, until the stretcher-bearers, working though they were like men inspired, had the opportunity to carry them away to the rear.
And then, what? Here were no swift, easy-running cars, no comfortable hospital-trains to whirl them down to a Base where there were baths, clean linen, and kindly sisters to make them forget what had passed. Instead, two or three bell-tents wherein doctors and orderlies, worked almost to a standstill and rocking on their legs with fatigue, strove to dress the wounds of the maimed and shattered men.
Nor was this the worst. After the wounds had been cleansed and bound up as well as might be, came the journey down to Kantara. The lucky few were carried in sand-carts, but the large majority went on camel-back, lying in a cacolet. A cacolet is a kind of stretcher-bed with a rail round it, and a hood over the top to protect the occupant from the sun. Each camel carried two cacolets, one clamped to each side of a specially constructed saddle. To a wounded man the motion was the very refinement of torture, especially if the other cacolet were occupied by a heavier man. At one moment the cacolet swung high in the air, and the sufferer was banged against the lower rail; the next, it was at the other extreme, and he was almost thrown out—there was no rest from the maddening motion until a merciful unconsciousness brought relief to the tortured body.