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ARABIAN NIGHTS AND DAYS.
WE reached Um El Surab soon after dawn on a rather autumnal day, which was a reminder that the "lesser rains" would probably start earlier than they did the previous year, which, in Palestine, was supposed to be the longest and hottest summer in the memory of man. Certainly, I do not remember ever being much hotter in midsummer in those parts than at the battle of Khuwelfeih, just after the capture of Beersheba, in October 1917.
The surroundings of Um El Surab were much pleasanter than El Umteiye, because the wells there were dry (we had to send over to El Umteiye each day for water), and consequently, as it offered no inducement for a Bedouin camp in ordinary times, the ground was cleaner and the surrounding plain full of grass. General Nuri arranged a system of day and night pioquets as well as patrols by the Ruweilah horse, and altogether we felt safer and more comfortable, especially as the Turks continued to bomb El Umteiye for the next few days, apparently under the impression that we were still there, though the reconnaissance from Deraa never materialised, for the reason, which we did not then know, that the whole Turkish organisation was in disorder as a result of the first great phase
of Allenby's viotery. Fortunately, the daily bombing never synchronised with the hours at which the cars and animals visited El Umteiye for water.
That morning at Surab we heard that L. and the Egyptian Camel Corps had destroyed another small section of the railway near a station called Ifden during the night. J. left about midday, accompanied by Sherif Nasser, for Azrak, to confer with L. over one or two points that had arisen during the previous twenty-four hours, and before leaving arranged that further raid on the railway should be attempted that night by a party from the column. It was obvious that so long as we stayed in the vicinity, the more we could interrupt rail communication between Deraa and Ammon, the safer we were. The plan for this particular night's adventure was to send an armoured car with an escort of about thirty Arab regulars and a "demolition party," consisting of K. and four of the French gunners, who understood the business. was a young British officer who was attached to General Nuri's staff as Intelligence Officer, and who spoke Arabic almost as well as he spoke English, as he had spent his childhood in Egypt. He possessed the only British batman
become like fox-hunting, "an image of war with only 25 per cent of its danger," in view of the small number of casualties.
On this occasion the lot fell upon me, so I spent the afternoon in settling as well as I could the route to be taken across the plain to the railway. While a compass would give the general direction, it would not guide us over the very twisting course that it was necessary to take to avoid "wadis" and the patches of impossible boulder - strewn ground. Moreover, there was one wadi which had to be crossed and could only be negotiated by the armoured car at one point. However, K. and I memorised the lie of
in the column, an Argyll and Sutherland Highlander, very redoubtable in action, who had perhaps the most remarkable rôle of any British soldier in any force; for, since K. messed and lived at the Arab Headquarters, his batman resided there also, cooking his own food and living by himself, on terms not of familiarity but of mutual respect with the Arab soldiers-respect based on weeks and months of hardship and endeavour in common. Whenever K. undertook any perilous enterprise, of which Occupation he was very fond, he was accompanied by this dour, stalwart Highland soldier. Of the four French gunners mentioned above (the majority of the detachment the land as well as we could, were from French North Africa), one was a Frenchman born, Sergeant M., a round, rather fat little Frenchman with large spectacles and wondering eyes, but, as I shall presently show, of unquestioned courage.
The officer who commanded the Arab escort was a vivacious and smiling young man who spoke bad French and worse English with tremendous rapidity. He had, however, the merit of being quite fond of "serapping."
The composition of the force having been settled, there remained the question of who was to be the senior British officer who was to accompany it in command or as "adviser" (whichever you will!), and for this there was some competition, the sport of railway destruction in Arabia having
and erected cairns of stones to help our memory when night came. We could net, of course, reconnoitre the last two miles to the railway, as it was essential that the Turks should be unaware of our project. From a distance, however, this part of the route looked comparatively easy.
Soon after dusk we set out. The armoured car throbbed rhythmically over the ground, very slowly and cautiously, with K. and I looking over the top of the turret and directing the driver; whilst the thirty Shereefians, plentifully supplied with Hotchkiss guns, and the four French gunners, jogged soberly along on their camels on our flank, with four men in front and four behind, as advanceand rear-guard respectively.
A wadi, unsuspected by K,
and I during our afternoon party" retired, save for Serreconnoitre, just before we geant M. and K., who were reached the railway, gave the to light the fuses, each startoar some trouble, but at last ing in the middle and working British determination plus outwards, the Arab commanRolls-Royce durability tri- der and I being in the centre, umphed and she got across. about 250 yards from the line, The "wadi" had one advan- where we could direct operatage, which was that it afforded tiens if necessary. "Crash! excellent shelter, for the camels boom!" went the first two who "barraked" (i.e., made to explosions, followed by a third lie down) in its dry bed were and fourth, when suddenly two practically under oover against machine-guns from the far side rifle or machine-gun fire from of the railway opened fire on the railroad. us. A second later the armoured cars replied, and we could hear the "swish, swish” of its machine-gun bullets over our heads. The Arab commander, after discharging a Very pistol, which, however useful as a signal to his picquets to come in, had the practical disadvantage of lighting up in the full glare of publicity his figure and mine, retired bis men to their camels hurriedly, but in good order, whilst K., who managed to explode all but three of his tulips, and I, hurried back to the car.
Having oroзsed the wadi, the Arabs proceeded to throw out picquets each side of the railway; the car took up a position on a knoll where it could give overhead machinegun fire protection to the pioquets if attacked, and K., his batman, and myself started to lay "tulips" at one end of the section of line, and the four Frenchmen at the other. We had sufficient explosives for thirty-two tulips, which, if they were all suo cessful, would mean the destruction of sixty-four rails. As we were so ignorant of the lie of the land, and as camels and an armoured car are at the best cumbersome objects to move out of action at night, we decided that, if the Turks attacked us, we would retire at once without putting up more than a show of fight, and explode what "tulips" we had fixed. For an hour there was no sound but the tapping and soraping of entrenchingtools and picks; then came the welcome moment when both parties had completed their task, and the "demolition
The Arabs mounted and rode down the wadi, and the car was about to follow them when a French gunner came running up to tell me that Sergeant M. was missing. Here was 8 quandary, as Arabia is no country in which to leave out your wounded, and it seemed obvious that he must have been hit. was just about to go back with his batman and look for M., when, in response to my calls for the latter, a high, squeaky, but welcome voice from the darkness called out, "Ici, men Commandant, ici!”
It appeared that M. had calm- on the line, he could not fail to hear the explosions. If this is not the explanation, I do not know why the machinegun crews which finally attacked us ever allowed us to reach the line at all, or why, if they were a party which arrived after we had started work, they did not make some attempt to scupper us when we retired. Had they worked round to our flank we should have been "in the soup."
ly continued to explode his "tulips," despite the orders to retire if we were attacked. With many expressions of regret for the trouble that he had caused me, he hoisted his brave little person into the car (his camel having got loose in the meanwhile and returned "on its own" to Um El Surab), and, with its human freight packed like sardines, the car proceeded to back out of action, still spitting venomously at our unseen enemy, who must have fired thousands of rounds of ammunition, but never caused us a single casualty. Two hours later we were all safely back at Um El Surab.
My explanation of the Turks' attitude is this. I am convinced that they had a post quite close to where we were working-probably a dozen private soldiers with two machine-guns-but that such was their growing demoralisation, as a result partly of the news which had probably reached them, though not yet us, of Allenby's victory, and partly at the uniform success of our daily and nightly raids, that they decided to lie low and do nothing until the noise of the explosives compelled them to make 8 show of resistance, in view of the fact that they would likely to get into trouble with their officer if he knew they had let us once again blow up the line without hindrance. The officer was probably at Ifden, a mile or two away, and whilst he would not have heard our arrival and work
The next day (or rather the same day, for we got back just after midnight) we spent quietly at Um El Surab, being still without news or orders; but in the early morning of the 22nd L., in a Bristol Fighter, accompanied by two other machines, arrived from Palestine with the electrifying news of Allenby's great victory. When we heard that Nazareth, Nablus, Janin, Afule, and a score of other places, with 22,000 prisoners, had been captured, we could scarcely believe our ears. We heard, too, of the projected advance northwards to Deraa and Damascus, and of our increasingly important rôle as the force, tiny in truth, but still the only force, between the Turks and their line of retreat. I began to realise with a start that little midnight adventures such as I had lately taken part in were but play-acting compared with what we might be called upon to do in the way of getting between the Turk and his objective, the goal of his fleeing famished army in the North; for his one idea was
become world-famous, and he hurried off to down the intruder. This he successfully did, and the Turkish 'plane fell in flames near the railway. He then returned and finished his porridge, which had been kept hot for him meanwhile! But not for him a peaceful breakfast that morning. He had barely reached the marmalade stage, when another Turkish 'plane appeared. Up hurried the Australian again; but this Turk was too wily and scuttled back to Deraa, only to be chased by P. on another machine, which sent him down in flames.
to get back as near as he an Australian who has since could to far-off Anatolia and comparative safety. I noticed with pride, but not without apprehension, knowing the pure flame of his courage, that L. fully intended that we should worry the retreating Turk as mastiffs of old worried a bear in a ring, oblivious of the possible consequences. He had no intention that the Arabs should take a back seat in the final destruction of the Turkish army. There were political as well as military considerations at stake, as the Arabs knew well, and L. was only playing on a highly keyed-up instrument. L. infected us all with his enthusiasm, and I began to feel, despite feel, despite my temperamental dislike of adventure qua adventure, that it would be monstrous if, when the Turkish fox came to be broken up, the British got the body, head, and brush, and the Arabs, who had helped to hunt him for three and a half years, only got a bit of the pad. If we were in at the military death of Turkey, "Brer Fox," it would make it the more difficult to refuse the Arabs a big share of the results-spoils, if you will-of the victory. Thus really began a fight which was continued in the Council Chamber in Paris, and of which the end is not yet. While L. and the airmen were having breakfast with us, & Turkish 'plane was observed, making straight for us. One of the airmen was
After these exploits the 'planes departed, save for one, D.H.9, that remained with us, and, whilst resting on & salt-pan which formed the temporary stable, was bombed in the early afternoon by a Turk; he arrived before our 'plane could get up, and it was noteworthy as being almost the last offensive act that the Turk performed against us.
The most exciting moment of a very thrilling day was the arrival in the evening of the E.E.F.'s only HandleyPage with General B. on board. Enthusiasm had gradually been working up among the different nationalities of the column all day, but it reached its climax when the Handley - Page made a graceful landing. The Arabs always had a great admiration for and interest in the British "Tiyaras," and the
1 Literally, "Female Flying Things."