The Desert Column (selected extracts)

As we drew level with Romani the roll of the guns to our right grew like thunder. The day was fearfully hot, the sand heavy. We branched off towards El Katia, chewing biscuits as we rode. Then my neddy snorted at a Turk who lay with his sand-filled eyes glazed to the sky; then past a smashed case with its Turkish ammunition shining on the sand. Then the neddy must snort at a dozen Turkish stretchers, all blood-soaked, then the guns boomed menacingly as we rode past a quiet oasis strewn with hundreds of ammunition cases, Turkish stretchers everywhere, odd ones occupied by dead men. We joked at the numerous bottles--mute evidence that the Turk and German officers had drunk to "the day."

A sharp burst of rifle-fire rolled out into a clattering roar. We were drawing very close! That old, peculiar feeling stole over me; it always does when going into action. I wonder if my ancestors experienced it when they advanced with club and spear.

"Halt!" "Taube! Taub-e! Taub-e!" was shouted back along the line and all those columns of men and horses stood perfectly still while the bird of ill omen droned by overhead. What a miraculous target she missed. So much for the spotting-powers of the aeroplane!

We pushed on and the rut-tut-tut purr-purrr of machine-guns grew ever more plainly amongst the rifle-fire. Then crash! Crash! Crash! Crash! And in the sky almost overhead circled our own planes with Turkish shrapnel exploding all around them. Presently we halted while the Heads held a pow-wow on the ridge in front. The firing, sharp and clear, sounded just over that ridge. We dismounted for a few moments while the following troops massed behind. Then mounted and as a massed regiment rode right to the top of the ridge. Straight down in front of us was a mile-long slope of hard sand leading right to the first oasis of the great El Katia system. Shrapnel was bursting over all those miles of palms, snowy puff-clouds distinct above the dark green of the oases.

The colonel pointed to the oasis immediately in front: "A battery of heavy Austrian guns has been located in that oasis," he said quietly but distinctly. "We have to charge and take the guns. Regiment-fix- bay'nets!"

By Jove, what a thrill ran through the regiment! The flash of steel, innumerable click, click clickings and five hundred bayonets gleamed.

As the squadrons moved out over the ridge we broke into a brisk trot.

The colonel with the adjutant rode in the lead, the squadron majors leading their squadrons, the old doctor and padre riding knee to knee, laughing as if at a great joke. The oasis was coming nearer and nearer. We held the horses in so as to have their strength in the last great clash. But they were getting excited; the men were getting excited; we rode knee to knee; right and left were excited faces and flashing steel; and our bodies felt the massed heat of the horses that tugged and strained as the squadrons broke into a swift canter. Then a horse reared high as it screamed and we were into a mad gallop, the horses' mouths open and their great eyes staring as the squadrons thundered on.

The officers waved revolvers and shouted, a roar of voices rose up and in the mad laughter was shouted wild things and the oasis just rushed towards us. Then to our right I glimpsed a sandbag trench. "The right flank is gone," I thought, and stared straight with gritted teeth-but not a solitary machine-gun rose above the parapet as we thundered by. I breathed again, thrilled, as hesitant men lined the oasis edge-even in those last mad moments I sensed that they were too terrified either to run or fire. We crashed through them and thundered into the oasis to a wild crackling of palm branches-we crashed right through the oasis out into a plain surrounded by a mile of palms. And there was the colonel out in front with his horse pulled back on its haunches, his head held high. "Halt!"

We surged around him in hundreds on plunging horses: we gazed at one another all jammed up-- the guns were not there! We breathed-- then came the sickening thud of bullets into horse-flesh. We doubled back amongst the palms with a machine-gun's bullets spraying into us. But what luck! Other guns were firing too high and raining down dates upon us from the palms!

The colonel's horse was down. Panting horses with crimson chests were sobbing up against their fellows. Back among the palms we got shelter and quickly lined up in troops.

Captured Turks told us that before we charged they hurried their guns back to the larger oasis and surrounded that central flat with machine-guns. If we had charged across it I don't think a man would have been left alive - it was a morass in the centre!

Bang-crash! Showers of sand, plunging horses, a gaping hole within six yards of C Troop - the shell had skimmed down right over the horses' backs! Had it bust one half-second sooner it would have wiped out the whole of the troop. How easy for us clustered mates to have been lying just there! I picked myself up, trembling as I wiped the sand from my eyes.

And so, for the rest of the afternoon the Turkish shells kept bursting only a few yards too short or a few yards too far behind the regiment all around us in the circle, and missed the tiny hollow in which were crouched six hundred men, and horses and the guns. We only had two wounded and a few horses killed. I know now that miracles happen.

Eventually I managed to pinch a horse from a man who had stolen it from El Katia, and I've rejoined the old regiment here at Hod-el-Amara, close by Bir-el-Abd. And so the diary is up to date again. It seemed an awful long time writing it up. Just a few of one man's experiences in a scrap. If every man of both armies wrote his experiences of one day's fighting only, it would take a great library to house the books. And yet we hear a rumour that the Government is ending out a journalist to write a "history of the war". What tommy rot!..................

...............Twenty minutes later, Stan and I spied our three chaps coming at a swinging canter with galloping horsemen behind them. As we looked, the leading pursuer leaned over his horse's neck, and puff, puff-revolver smoke! Stan and I burst out laughing - there was old Bert being chased by Turkish cavalrymen, and Bert wasn't wasting time either! The Turks gained, shooting as they came. They yelled as if they wanted our chaps. Like a trick rider the second Turk leaped off his pony, knelt down. Crack! Crack! A mighty poor shot! Our chaps didn't increase their pace much, but they had the spurs in.

The Jackos swerved when they saw us and opened out snappily from the shelter of a ridge. And so far as our brigade was concerned it was just patrol fights among those dales and palm-groves, and cultivation, and odd stone houses. We enjoyed it. The smell of green grass and the flowers helped wonderfully.

When the Heads had gained the information they wanted, the two brigades rode back, to the tune of the rear-guard rifles talking to the Turkish horsemen who hung around our flanks.................

.............Passing Rafa, we joked at sight of the boundary pillars, each man calling out when half his horse was in Palestine, half in Egypt.

Some of the Rafa trenches were still half-full of dead Turks. We cursed the Bedouin again for we saw where he had dug up our dead for the sake of the clothes, leaving the poor naked bodies to the jackals...............

..........We arrived late at Sheikh Zowaid, watered and fed the neddies, did the same to ourselves, and then the lucky ones not on duty turned in to dream of flowers and grass all beautiful on solid ground.

February 26th - Reconnaissance to Rafa

February 27th - Yesterday the brigade rode to El Badari, fifteen miles east. The regiments then branched out and as a screen scoured ten miles of country. Our troop struck a Bedouin encampment of over a hundred tents, huge sheets patiently made from hair of goats, camels, and sheep. Each great sheet is supported by a few sticks. Whole families camp in them, with goats, sheep and occasionally a young camel. The shepherds live simply in holes in the ground. These people are not the nomads of the desert. These are "superior". The have flocks of sheep, goats, camels, and a few cattle. They plough the ground a few inches deep. Their plough is a pointed stick. A camel drags it. Their few rude implements are what their forefathers used in the days before Moses. The treacherous dogs fired on us from cover and lit numerous smoke-fires to warn the Turks: they are protected by order of the British Heads. We had patrol fights - one patrol charged us with the lances but they swerved and galloped away when we jumped from our horses and knelt with fixed bayonets.........

.........Sunday - The brigade has been out past Kahn Yunus. We combed El Fukhari and Abassan-el-Kebir. Our main body halted at El Belah, but the screen went farther. The country has groves of orchards, mostly fig-trees. ........ Thickly populated: big-bearded fellows. Numbers are handsome, scowling brutes; but I don't think they ever wash themselves. They wear belts full of bullets, and revolvers stick out all over them. Under their gowns they all carry at least one dagger, mostly curved. The sheikhs have scimitars as well, attractively ornamented; some have silver handles. They are armed with long-barrelled horse-pistols that looks as old as a Crusader; but they have many modern German and American automatics too. We found New Zealand rifles in some of their houses.

Twice now we have been surprised on rounding up a mob of these ambush fighters, to find an "Arab" Englishman amongst them. What game chaps these Secret Intelligence agents are. The Arabs torture them to death when they penetrate their disguise..............

..............We can't understand why they don't let us gallop in as mounted troops and get the thing over. It will have to be done at the finish-after the Turks have fortified all Palestine. Gaza should have fallen on the first day, at a cost to us of only a few hundred lives. Thousands have twice now been thrown away in two attacks and we have been fighting for a month besides. It looks as if we will be fighting for months again after this with the task growing harder and harder.

And all because some ..... general wanted the honour of taking Gaza by infantry. Infantry cannot fight any faster then they can march. Actually, when fighting, they cover distance practically at a snail's pace. Then both infantries meet, and dig into trenches and advance no more. If both sides had reinforcements and food and munitions, and men had their wives a few miles behind the lines, and each brigade had now and then a fortnight's leave, countries could fight on for ever with no gain to either side.

… We hear that the Turkish garrison in the Abu Hareira redoubt numbers six thousand men. If their main redoubts are held in similar strength - and those redoubts have been surveyed under German Engineers….?

....… Some of our chaps brought in some wounded Staffordshire Yeomanry this morning. They had been lying out all night, putting up a fight against Bedouins who were trying to cut their throats.......

...… Chaplain Maitland-Woods is a decent old sort. He is quite mad, though; mad on old buried cities, and ancient peoples. Whenever the padre gets a chance, he climbs one of these big old mounds and a crowd congregates, Aussies and En Zeds, Tommies and Cameleers and Artillerists and heaven knows what not, while he holds forth and tells us that the Bedouins were the cut-throat Amalekites who harried David and were just as dirty a crowd thousands of years ago as they are today..........

May 17th - We have moved camp to the Gharbi-Gamli redoubts. … Seven New Zealanders were shot on their daily reconnaissance. A long line of Turkish infantrymen craftily moved out in the night and snuggled down in a barley field. Out ahead of them were hidden snipers. At dawn, horse patrols out in front were the lure for the trap. The En Zeds chased them into the barley and of course got it in the neck. Yesterday two men in a 7th Regiment screen were killed rather similarly.

… We've seen where the papers gave us an odd paragraph or two about the Second Battle of Gaza. Now one has come out with a lot of rot about the "Great Gaza Victory", and glowing lies about the lads out here living in a "Land of Paradise", revelling in oranges, pomegranates, and all the fruits of the Orient. We wish that the idiots responsible for such lies were out here swallowing dust......
....… One of our lads got a parcel addressed to "a lonely soldier". Enclosed was a note from the lady expressing the pious whish that a brave soldier in France should get the parcel and not a cold-footed squib in Egypt. The chap who received the parcel sent the lady some photos of our desert graves, with compliments from a cold footed squib in Egypt.......

......June 2nd - We have been issued with brand new rifles and a more powerful brand of ammunition. We are delighted for now we should meet Jacko nearly on even terms… A plane has just been brought down by Turkish gunfire. Both aviators, Australians, were buried at El Arish. A lonely sleeping-place poor chaps… They have us polishing stirrup-irons again. When will this cursed war cease!

June 3rd - A dozen of us are Ammunition Guard in an orchard in Khan Yunus. Overhead are Taubes circling among shrapnel-puffs. Towards Gaza, big guns are speaking with a steady, rolling roar. Among our orchard trees little birds are twittering. Over the shore sand hills, a sweet breeze is blowing while around us are memories of the Crusaders. Their old castle still towers, sere and grey, above the trees. Everywhere are orchards, enclosed by giant walls of prickly pear. Many are the deep wells of ice-cold water. The Arab inhabitants look dignified in their flowing robes. Some of the girls are desert pretty, and are cheekily inclined towards us but fear their scowling men. The notorious Sheikh Ali El Hirsch and his bonny men have a reputation in these parts, being credited with having cut the throats of sufficient Christians to ensure all the population of Khan Yunus a certain pass to Paradise.

.....… Tel-el-Marakeb. When off duty, I go for a walk along the beach at sundown. The wet sand is firm, everything is quiet and still, for a precious tow hours a man can almost forget the army and claim his soul his own. In a small date palm oasis Bedouins are camped. At sundown the ragged men walk to the beach, spread their praying mats of bag and turning their backs to the setting sun and the sea offer payers to their God with a faith and easnestness equalled by very few Christians. One evening as I passed behind them a black-bearded chap's eyes lit on me as he stood muttering devotions, but I'm doubtful if at the moment the "Christian dog" existed for him.

I could not help thinking that if they had a religion less dogmatic, less cruel, less intolerant, less murderous, and put their intensity of mind and life more to other things, they might become quite a force in the world instead of being a living clog from the days before Moses.......

....… On a night raid at Belah, a Taube almost skimming the ground dropped only three bombs but they caused eighty casualties to the men of the 53rd Division. Eighty men outed in six seconds! Thirty of them in Paradise in fifteen!

...… Last night an Italian officer from Tripoli was telling us how the Arabs forced three hundred prisoners down a well two hundred feet deep, then filled the well in on top of them.

September 18th - We are moving back to the Front today. This has been a splendid camp, the only genuine spell we have ever had… Papers arrived lately, stating that five thousand original Australians are to go back to Australia. Of course, the whole division could talk and think of nothing else - until a paragraph came contradicting the first. Whoever is responsible for those paragraphs should be hung and quartered. Better still, they should be made to enlist and after three years' Front Line should read in the papers that they are to go back to Australia for a spell. Next day they should be handed a paper contradicting the report. Of course, the chances are eighty to one that they would not live through the three years. In that case I would be sorry.

The day after - Morry and Stan and I spent last night crouched in a cave across on the Hebron hills. It was a tense little night with the brilliant stars and cold rock slopes for company - and the Turks who knew not that we were there. But the Turkish patrol we wished to ambush did not come with the dawn. At daylight we crossed the valley and hurriedly climbed our own whopper hill. The rising sun lit up the crowns of the Turkish hills, the peeps at Hebron's white housed being quite pretty… Our battery changed its position and again it and the Austrians are banging away. But the Turks have brought up heavy reinforcements, apparently fearing a big attack from this flank. Fragments of shell and shrapnel-pellets are whizzing amongst us even though we have splendid cover. The shells from both sides are screaming overhead, making hell's own row among these rocky hills. On the crests behind us, hundreds of Bedouins are looking on. As they stand up or squat down, we can swear their white-and-black shrouded figures are signals to the Turkish observation posts across the valley… The battle is raging-we wonder how things are going; apart from the rolling thunder we only hear rumours, whispers. We know that around the Tel el Khuweilfe fortifications the fighting is desperate, the 1st Light Horse Brigade, the New Zealanders and the Camel Corps have gone in on foot to help the infantry. Their horses had been forty hours without water and had to be sent back to Beeersheba where they went made immediately they smelt the water-troughs. Rumour is varied as to the struggles around the great redoubt systems stretching right to Gaza. But Khuweilfe is in everybody's mind for it holds water, water, water!

Apart from us knowing that the navy and land batteries are putting Gaza under such a terrific bombardment as the Turks never dreamed of even in their worst experiences of Gallipoli, we have heard only one wisp of Gaza news. The Scotties stormed Umbrella Hills. Their fist wave was blown up by land mines, but successive waves rolled on and took the hill with bomb and bayonet. The 54th Division with their six tanks are experiencing bitter fighting.

A few hours later - We were all sitting down hungrily eating bully-beef and biscuits when a screeching hail of iron and splintered rock smashed throughout the regiment. Men were down - horses down, others rearing-one poor brute balanced on its head for seconds, before it collapsed and rolled down the hill. Crash-crash! Jagged iron and lead and shattered rock and more men down - more horses, some stone dead already, others writhing for foothold on the steep, rocky hillside, while other animals not wounded to death just stood still, dumbly wondering why warm sunlight had been transformed into hell. We rushed to the help the wounded- to catch the horses whose masters were down - seeking them quickly what poor shelter the hill could give. For suddenly what had been good shelter was now none at all. The Austrians had brought up something doubly new in howitzers, the shells from a dizzy height came straight down - their trajectory would sheer a precipice and they burst behind the hill yet in against the very rocks behind which we ere sheltering. Each shell burst with a double crash as if two shells joined - one half exploding from the other and kicking backwards. Instead of the big iron shrapnel-case shrieking empty to the ground it too was filled with explosive and burst into a thousand pieces. One horse had his neck cut clean in halves by a single fragment. Just a few shells-direct hits-but what a mess they made! For the remainder of the afternoon we were helping the wounded down from the rocks, seeking cover somehow, somewhere, anywhere for the unwounded horses, shooting the poor brutes that were too badly hurt to save. I saw men nearly cry today - we love our horses. Again and gain the Austrians swung their guns on us, plastering our battery or any wisp of dust that might betray horsemen seeking cover. At such times the air above was a splitting terror of doubly busting shells. I heard odd rifle shots and knew that some maddened trooper was taking his revenge for his horse, for on the rocky crags behind the Bedouins like black vultures had stood all day, watching us. Looking up this our hill this evening, sombre under the setting sun, with its blood-stained rocks and dead horses, it makes us feel what a miserable thing war is. And we hate the Bedouin. And know a fierce resentment against the Turk who waits for us to pant up those great hills opposite and dig him out of his snug redoubts with the bayonet. Colonel Cameron is downcast over this morning's sudden tragedy..........

....4pm - We are close by Beersheba. What a hive of activity the town is, especially the great wells where gangs of engineers worked in almost frenzied energy around pumping plants, erecting great lines of troughs. All the wells are a mass of thirst maddened horses. The 8th Light Horse have been fighting with no rations, their horses forty hours without water. The New Zealanders and the 1st Light Horse Brigade are fighting on foot, their perishing horses are frantic around the wells.

The 53rd Division and the Camel Brigade are fighting bitterly around Tel el Khuweilfe for that place is an important road junction seven miles west of Dharayet. But above all it holds the water without which great bodies of troops cannot push forward to the next phase of the fight. Some of the 7th have just hurried off to lend a hand. We wonder are we all going!... The brigade has just got orders to move out. Vanish our dreams of a sleep tonight...........

.......The day after - very early morning - The brigade hurried off down the wadi until its banks opened out into our rolling downs country with the blue range of Shephalah on our right and the formidable positions of Sharia and Hareira on our left. The Turk is fighting magnificently. As position after position is taken its survivors fall back on prepared fortifications behind: the reinforced fresh troops fight with fatalistic determination.........

.........We grinned at some German officers, for they looked very hot and dusty and annoyed........

Two guns in particular, four miles ahead, had been harassing our regiment. So when the Old Brig. came along at a hand gallop, pipe alight, we formed into artillery formation and galloped straight for the guns. How they plastered us with shells! By Jove it was a grand gallop with the horses reefing for their heads, three blood boiling miles with the screeching air blast of the shells in our faces, then a thrilling loneliness as a Squadron galloped on alone - into a bust of machine gun fire, vicious rattle of rifles. We saw lines of infantry lying behind the guns - every man stared - numbers laughed as we pressed knees into our horses - we galloped over a low hill down into a gully, our horses on their haunches as the major shrieked "Halt!" We peered over the sheltering bank at a flat running for six hundred yards in full view of the German machine guns waiting- relays of Turkish infantry waiting too!

Our first troop faced the gully bank, then at a signal dug in their spurs. The horses plunged up - we caught our breaths at the hail of shrapnel as their tails swept up over the bank! The gunners had the point blank range to a breath. Then another troop - three sections at a time spurred over at erratic distances apart - the shells and bullets churning a lane of whistling earth out of the gully lip, but the next troop went over just a little farther up or down the bank and the Austrians lost seconds in swerving the guns. Our turn came. The first three sections jammed knee to knee against the bank - our hearts thumping - minds racing with a variant dodge to fluster the gunners. We waited (My God! How breathlessly) until two shells exploded crash-crash! - we spurred up into the cloud of smoking dust, horses pawing the bank, and were racing for our lives. Crash-crash! A blinding flame tore the ground in a whirlwind of dust and fumes, tearing screech of high pressure bullets - we strained hold of our maddened horses then, ...! A precipitous gully in front - the awful sensation of a void- a breakneck swerve - a crossing came, thank God-scream of shells passing feet away -hot breaths of bullets thicker and thicker - horses berserk - the certainty that horse and man must crash reaching the shelter now so near, then another wild swerve and we were going down in among panting horses and the men who had gone before. Pools of blood were forming there; an old chestnut horse I had often ridden held its head pathetically, bleeding from the nose. Lieutenant Webster lay dying; his men liked him very much. Others were down, but our casualties as almost always were extraordinary light. I don't think any regiment in the world could escape annihilation if it tackled two Austrian guns supported by machine guns and riflemen-and we were only a squadron!

We lined the ridge and opened out on the Turks. They would not stand - blazing with their guns as they steadily retired before us while reinforcements appeared behind them rushing up more machine guns. It was almost sundown and presently we had pressed on a long way ahead of our horses but the Turks refused to stand, just fighting us yard for yard, retiring as we advanced, fighting yet luring us on most cunningly. We fixed bayonets and crept forward ready to charge the shadowy figures immediately we could get close enough, but in the heat of anticipation the order "Retire!" was signalled from the invisible brigade behind.

We galloped back and presently formed outposts when to our intense surprise most of us lay down by our horses to sleep. It appears the Anzac Mounted Division had been ordered to wait until Tel el Khuweilfe had fallen and the Australian Mounted Division could catch up. We had had no water since leaving Beersheba.

Then C Troop was ordered back to guard the guns lest reinforcements should turn our flank and train the weapons on our rear. On our way back, we met hordes of "vultures", hundreds upon hundred of Bedouin men, women and children driving donkeys and camels, all horribly eager to the loot the Turkish camps. Numbers of these Arab cut throats carried sacks of little flat loaves of brown Turkish bread, looted from the still warm ovens. We hungrily commandeered some of that bread. The Arabs snarled at us. We could have shot them with far greater pleasure then we shoot Turks.

Our Bible enthusiast is bubbling over, for Es Dud is the ancient Ashdod of the Old Testament, the Ashdod of the Philistines…. Cox's brigade just saved the old bridge at Jisr Esdud and are defending it by a bridge head. Our troops have galloped over Ascalon, and the Bible enthusiast has balanced himself on a German beer barrel (empty) and got this off his chest: "O man, savage ferocious, what desolation hast thou wrought on the earth! They have stretched out upon Ascalon the line of confusion and the stones of emptiness. Thorns have come up in her palaces and brambles in the fortresses thereof and it is a habitation of dragons and a covert for owls."

We cheered him: he bowed and gave us a lecture. It appears that Gaza and Ascalon, Ashdod, Gath and Ekron were five capital cities. Some old prophet cursed them and the prophecy came true. Ashdod the Proud defied the siege of Psammetichus for twenty nine years. An old Crusader castle, ruined like the city, still guards the forlorn harbour. At Ascalon city, Herod was born. Gaza is the only city of them left… A shell has just burst above the Bible enthusiast and he ended his lecture abruptly-five shrapnel bullets whizzed right through the barrel............

....…. The Australians have taken some enormous convoys. Firing is rolling right up from the coast to the Judean hills. The fellows are cheery as anything, even if we are covered in septic sores and awfully sleepy… We are in desperate straits for want of water….. We hear that the New Zealanders' horses have gone seventy hours without water. The Yeomanry have done a perish too… The Cameleers are being severely counter - attacked. The "ships of the desert" look grotesque lumbering into action while modern armoured cars roar past them spitting flame from machine-guns…...

December - Hammane. Around us are sand dunes, farther inland are the prickly pear hedges hemming in the orchards, the olive, almond, and orange groves. The inhabitants guard their trees as if every orange were made of gold. We are again disgusted with the lies of the papers, stressing the wretched inhabitants of Palestine as starving with hunger. Such possibly may be true of the country below Jerusalem, certainly not of the people we have seen so far, except those unlucky villages and colonies whose inhabitants have been of a different religion to the Turks. The men, women, and children we have so far seen in this agricultural Palestine are all fat and healthy, have plenty to eat, and good clothes. Their flocks are fat and large, so far as flocks go in this thickly populated area. Again, the papers write glowingly of how the "Liberators" are welcomed with open arms and tears of joy. Rot! The inhabitants hang white rags on the roofs of their houses, tell us all the lies imaginable to prevent us obtaining water for our horses and let us plainly know were are aliens, and to keep our distance. Even the thousands of Turks we have captured, are fatter then we; they are excellently equipped, they have abundance of food and tobacco, their transports are overloaded with warm winter clothing. They are profusely supplied with ammunition for all arms, their air service is excellent and has consistently been far superior to ours in modern machines. No, the papers have ignored our campaigns altogether until this great victory. Now they are full of skite and lies. Certainly we have passed occasional villages that have suffered so terribly from the Turks that no pen could describe their woe. But those villages and towns, so far, are in the minority. ...........................
..................It has done us all a world of good too; we have had a chance to dress our septic sores. Eighty per cent of us are half rotten with them; but the flies won't get such a feed now.............. .

............I think this is the 17th. Yesterday we rode by numbers of vividly pretty little roofed towns. The inhabitants are very fair skinned, mostly Jews. They are by far the most cleanly people we have yet met. They are very hospitable although they do charge us a hefty price for brown bread, honey, and tobacco. Lots of them have had a hard time from the Turks. They seem to live between two devils, the Turk and the Arab. Apparently the Turk prevents the Arab from massacring them outright, because the Jews are a very handy people to squeeze taxes from… Distantly we see the city roofs of "Jaffa the Beautiful"- very pretty in its hills and trees and orchards, even at this distance.

We must have seemed queer fighting men to them for they stared as if they had expected to see supermen, not rough-clad Australians. I don't think they could realize that we actually were the men who had driven back their taskmaster of centuries. They seem also to be on the verge of something they cannot believe, cannot understand: they tremble when they whisper of Jerusalem. It appears there is some prophecy, centuries old, that one day Jerusalem will fall and will be taken from the Turk or from whatever infidel holds it.

The old neddies enjoy these rides through the shady lanes. We can tell by their willing movement, by the quick ring of their hooves that they think this land just fine.

The Turks have left numbers of these towns and their mild-looking inhabitants quite unharmed. All on account of taxes, we hear. But other places have suffered the dreadful penalties that always seem to tread upon the heels of the conqueror. Except the British conqueror - and they go to the other extreme..............

........Stan arrived back from the mobile column yesterday with a fresh horse. He says that upon the Gaza redoubts are thousands of skeletons, relics of the Gaza battles, lying where they fell with their rusty equipment still upon them. Stan also says that the Turks played hell with the city, chopped down the trees in the parks and gardens and took all the rafters from the buildings to help strengthen the fortifications. What remains of the tank on Tank Redoubt is still there....................

............Ludd is a rather similar town to Ramleh. Both places are rich in memories of the Crusaders. Ascalon and Ekron and Esdud and other old time terrors are round about. What with Samson, and the Israelites and Philistines, Abraham and Moses and Isaac and the Australians and New Zealanders, not to mention the Yeomanry and Coeur de Lion, a man doesn't know in whose dust he is riding. These places were crowded with troops, and the dirty inhabitants scowled at us plainly wishing they were men enough to cut our throats.

Farther on we rode through more olive groves, the growl of guns ever beckoning just ahead… We are ready to move off again… It rained last night. The farmers amongst us are very interested in this country's cultivation.

Next day - Our bible enthusiast wangled a trip to Jaffa. The inhabitants had a dreadful time under Jemal Pasha. He cast out forty thousand of the population, only allowing ten thousand red-hot Turkish sympathizers to stay in the city. Jaffa is very beautiful, set in the hills by the coast, surrounded by its gardens and fruit groves. By the old time city is a stone quay, as good as when it was built, to tie up Crusaders' ships. Just off-shore is the rock of Andromeda, where that young lady was tied while the tide came up. In sight of this rock is Simon the Tanner's house. Napoleon was caught in a tight corner at Jaffa, so he massacred his prisoners and poisoned his sick.

When the En Zeds took the city there were some thousands of poor little devils of orphans there, made so by the Turks. Hundreds died of starvation. We were much surprised when the Bible enthusiast told us that Miss McConachy, the Red Cross worker we all knew at the Soldiers' Club in Esbekiah Gardens, Cairo, was there in charge of some mission trying to save the orphans. The first thing the New Zealanders did when the town surrendered was to find her house and place a guard over it.

 

Ion L Idriess, 1932, The Desert Column, published by Angus & Robertson Limited.