Campaign of the Caliphs for Damascus
Story of the Desert Fighting From Mecca to Damascus Under the King of the Hedjaz
[New York Times/Current History, February 1919]
This picturesque chapter of war history, as full of wonder and romance as the Arabian Nights, was written by a correspondent of The London Times, who was in touch with the Arabs throughout their campaign against the Turks. One of the leading figures, Sherif Feisul, is the third son of the Sherif of Mecca, whose successful revolt against Turkish domination helped General Allenby to crush the Turks in Palestine. The last campaign was fought in close co-operation with Allenby's forces.
Soon after he heard the news of the surrender of Kut by General Townshend, Hussein ibn All, Grand Sherif and Emir of Mecca, sent word to the British Government that he could no longer stand by and witness the continued subjection of the Arabs to the Turks. He asked for pay, arms, and food for his troops, and before they had been promised him broke out into rebellion against the Young Turk Party and their German masters.
The Sherifs of Mecca have long been de facto rulers of Mecca and its provinces, and the immense prestige of the family among the Arabs (Hussein ibn Ali is the senior descendant of Mohammed, and as such head of the Sherifs, the Prophet's family) carried all the Arabs of the Hedjaz with them in their revolt. They easily crushed the Turkish garrisons of Taif, Mecca, and Jedda, and opened up communication with the British fleet in the Red Sea, so that the arms and food they needed for the further extension of their rising might be brought to their coasts.
THE ATTACK ON MEDINA
At Medina, where Sherifs Feisul and Ali (third and eldest sons of the Sherif of Mecca) raised their father's flag on June 13, 1916, the eventful day of the Mecca revolt, events were less fortunate. The Turks had expected hostilities, and had brought down large forces from Syria to anticipate events. Feisul raised all the tribesmen and villagers about Medina and occupied the suburbs, but shrank from an attack on the Holy City itself. The Tomb of Mohammed makes Medina very sacred to all Moslems, and especially to members of the Prophet's own family; and the Arabs were new to warfare, and had not got before them the example of the Turks, who shelled at Mecca the Kaaba, the centre of Moslem interest in things of this world. Whatever the cause, they lost their opportunity.
They cut the railway to Syria, tearing up lengths of the metals with their bare hands and throwing them down the bank, (for they had no explosives,) but they refused to cut the precious water conduits or to clear their way by fighting through the streets. The Turks, encouraged by their inactivity, sallied out at dawn, surprised the garden suburb of Awali, massacred in it hundreds of women and children and burned the rest—putting machine guns at the gates and setting fire in many places to the flimsy houses.
Feisul dashed up with his Arab camel men to the rescue, but was in time only to harry the last files of the retreating Turks. The Arabs now clamored for an assault on the great citadel that stood without the walls, and when Feisul tried to hold them back plunged forward without him. The Turks had, however, a formidable armament collected there, and the Arabs had never before met artillery fire. The assaulting column swerved aside and took refuge in the broken lava slopes of a low hill outside the northeast angle of the town. The Turks saw their weakness and sent out an enveloping force to cut off and destroy them. Feisul, with the rest of the Arabs, a mile back on the flank, saw the danger of their fellows, and started out to help them.
A DARING LEADER
The Turks opened with all their guns from the town wall, covering the open ground with bursting shrapnel, and after their first losses the Arabs wavered and then took cover in the gardens. Feisul rode up to their front line on his horse, and called to them to follow him. Their chief refused, saying that it was death to cross the plain. Feisul laughed, and turning his horse forced it to walk through the Turkish fire till he had gained the shelter of the opposite gardens. Then he waved to the troops behind him, who charged across to him at a wild gallop, losing only about twenty men on the way.
The combined forces now engaged the sallying Turks, and a costly fight was maintained till dark, when Feisul found himself nearly without ammunition, and without reserves of men, food, or arms for the morrow. He had therefore to change all his plans, abandon hope of an immediate victory in the north, and instead endeavor to hold his disheartened army together till he could obtain new supplies from the coast, where Rabegh, half way to Mecca, had been promised him as a base.
The siege of Medina indeed made little progress after this, and the town still holds out and may continue to do so for long after 'the rest of the world is at peace. It has been cut off from Turkey for long enough, but so have the Turkish garrisons of Asir and Yemen. It is a holy city, so that the Arabs have never fired, and will never fire, a shot against it, (ideal conditions for a besieged army.) The Turks have deported every civilian, and scattered them, without record, or means, or hope of return, over all the Ottoman Empire. We found Medina refugees in Jerusalem, in Kerak, in Damascus. Some are in Konia, some in Angora, some in Constantinople itself; their only common touch today is destitution. Their gardens have fallen to the Turkish garrison, just as the jewels and splendid offerings of the Prophet's Tomb have fallen to the Turkish governors. The soldiers spend their days in husbandry, and at night withdraw to the sheltering walls of the town.
In the first days of the Arab revolt, however, things were not so easy nor so idyllic. The army in Medina was as strong as the Arab tribesmen outside, and was equipped with guns and machine guns and airplanes. As they collected transport, or received it from Syria by the now repaired railway, they pushed their lines further and further afield, and by seizing the only wells in the countryside began to make a menacing advance toward Rabegh, the key of Mecca in the military sense. Feisul flung himself into a tangle of difficult sandstone hills that flanked the Turkish advance, and while his brother Ali at Rabegh was striving to form the beginnings of a regular army, to add to the tribesmen that technical aid which alone could enable them to meet the Turks fairly in the field, Feisul set himself, with little bands of ravaging Bedouins on camels, to make impossible a serious advance of the Turks by raiding their lines of communication. It was risky work, since the Arab parties—because of difficulties of water supply—could not exceed ten or fifteen men, and these had to dash in on the main road, kill or carry off what they could, and regain their camels and escape before the garrison of the blockhouses could turn out. Only men who could leap into the camel saddle at the trot with one hand while carrying a rifle with the other were chosen for this service.
The Arabs' best efforts at defense proved insufficient, and Feisul saw that a change of plan was necessary if the Turks were to be prevented from regaining Mecca and crushing the Arab movement in its infancy. After consulting the British naval authorities in the Red Sea he determined that if they would support him to the utmost he would risk leaving the Mecca road undefended and carry his whole force away from Yenbo to attack Wejh, 200 miles further north alcng the Hedjaz coast. He argued that by boldly taking the offensive against the Turkish communications with Syria—and Wejh covered a vital section of the Hedjaz railway, the life-cord of the Turkish forces in Arabia—he would force them to divert a considerable force to purely defensive purposes, and might so deceive them by his apparent careless confidence in the strength of Mecca as to persuade them to abandon their forward march against it.
To take his place Feisul called up his younger brother Zeid, and gave him what men he thought not worth taking away, so that Zeid might make a semblance of resistance in the hills, while he also asked his elder brother Abdulla, who had been blockading Medina on the east, to move across the railway, north of Medina, and appear to threaten the Turkish line of communication directly. Abdulla had actually no force capable of doing anything very serious, but he made a fine start by cutting up some mobile Turkish units, and left between the metals of the railway a letter to the Turkish commander in Chief in Medina, telling him of all, and much more than all, of what he meant to do.
A FLANK MARCH
Feisul's own operation consisted of a flank march of 200 miles parallel to the Turkish front by an inferior fighting force, leaving behind it an open base and the only possible defense line of the Middle Hedjaz undefended. He embarked on the ships put at his disposal by the British senior navy officer, Red Sea, all his arms and stores from Yenbo before he left the place. He divided his 10,000 men into nine sections, to move independently to Urn Lejj, a little coastal village half way, and ordered to concentrate there by Jan. 14, 1917. At Um Lejj he issued them with fresh supplies (obtained, as agreed, from the ships) and sent on board a landing party to be used in the actual attack on Wejh in co-operation with the navy. He had then to contemplate a march of 150 miles, without a single spring of water and only a few weak wells to suffice for what was, for the desert, an exceptionally large army. To aggravate things, there was little grazing for the camels, and the scarcity of baggage animals made it impossible to carry forage. The Bedouin, too, who guided us had no short unit of time, such as the hour, to inform us of distance, and no longer measure of space than the span. They had no realization of numbers larger than ten, and could not tell us the roads, or the wells, or how much capacity they had. Intercommunication between Bedouin forces is always hindered because no man in the force can read or write. In the end, however, we got through on Jan. 25, without losing a man from hunger or thirst. We lost many camels, but all our mules survived the trip, thanks to a Royal Indian marine ship which put into an uncharted bay on the coast and supplied them with water in the middle of a dry march of seventy-five miles.
The actual business of Wejh was settled by the navy and the landing party before the main army came up. Feisul was in time only to cut off some of the escaping garrison and capture all their reserves of arms and equipment. The naval force had a quite difficult fight, but eventually carried their points without undue loss by making free use of water communication to outflank the Turkish positions and by the very vigorous support given by the ship's guns to the various landing parties. The Turks entrenched themselves in the town, and fought from street to street, while the Arabs cleared the houses both of Turks and of all movable property. The whole place was taken in thirty-six hours, and the navy set the seal on its work by taking up other Arab landing parties to Dhaba and Moweilah on Feb. 8 and Feb. 9, by the action of which the whole of the northern end of the Red Sea, up to the Gulf of Akaba, was cleared of the enemy.
ORGANIZING DESERT TRIBES
After the occupation of Wejh, the Arab operations had to take a new phase. The Turks who had been advancing on Mecca at once fell back on Medina, and began to defend their pilgrim railway seriously. This gave the Arab Sherif Feisul the time and leisure he so much needed to construct his army of regular troops. It need hardly be said that Arabia provided no recruitable population. The Bedouin is hostile to discipline and unfit for regular service; though on his own day, in his own country, and in his own style, he will dispose of many times his number of any troops that can be brought against him. Feisul's regular army was composed of peasantry from Syria and from Mesopotamia. In part, they came from their own districts secretly to him. Many were deserters from the Turkish Army, for the Turks when war broke out had pressed 150,000 Arab-speaking subjects into their army, and these men, when the Sherif revolted, all knew that the day of reckoning with their masters was approaching.
Besides the labor of forming a regular army, Sherif Feisul at Wejh devoted himself day and night to securing desert power, to take the place of the British sea power that henceforward could serve him only indirectly. In this he succeeded, thus gaining a means of approach and a line of communication for all enterprises he desired against the cultivated land of Palestine and Syria as ready and inviolable almost as the sea has proved to Britain. It took him months to obtain the suffrages of all the tribes, and the expenditure of as much tact and diplomacy as would suffice for years of ordinary life. What he achieved, however, is little short of wonderful. From time immemorial the desert has been a confused and changing mass of blood feuds and tribal jealousies. Today there are no blood feuds among the Arabs from Damascus to Mecca; for the first time in the history of Arabia since the seventh century there is peace along all the pilgrim road.
While forming his army and developing his policy, Feisul kept the Turks busy by frequent railway raids. He cut the line in dozens of places, and did each time what damage he could. But the construction of the Hedjaz railway is primitive and there are no great bridges or elaborate constructions which can be destroyed to interrupt the line for a sensible period. His work had to be done and redone continually, and very heart-breaking work it was.
A FIGHTING SHEIK
By early May, however, Feisul's propaganda in the north was crowned with success, by the adhesion to him of Sheik Auda abu Tayi, the leading spirit of the Howeitat and the finest fighting man in the desert. He is over 50 now, but still tall and straight and as active as a young man. He prides himself on being the quintessence of everything Arab. His hospitality is sweeping, often crushing; his generosity has reduced him many times to poverty and swallowed the profits of a hundred successful raids. He has married twenty-eight times, been wounded thirteen times, and in his battles has seen all his tribesmen hurt and most of his relatives killed. His escape from wounds in the last eight years he ascribes to an amulet, (the rarest and richest in the world, in his judgment,) a complete copy of the Koran produced in photo-miniature by a Scotch firm. His private "kill" in single fight is seventy-five since 1900—Arabs, be it understood, for Turks are not entered in Auda's game book. Under his hands the Howeitat had become the finest fighting men in the desert, and he has seen Aleppo, Basra, and Mecca in his raids. He is as hard-headed as he is hot-headed, has extreme patience, and ignores advice and abuse with the most charming smile. He talks abundantly, in a voice like a waterfall, of himself usually, and in the third person. His great pride is to tell tales against himself, or to tell in public fictitious but appalling stories of the private life of his host or guests.
Auda came to Wejh and swore allegiance to the Sherif in the picturesque Arab formula, on the book, and then sat down to dinner with Feisul. Half way through the meal he rose with an apology and withdrew from the tent. We heard a noise of hammering without, and saw Auda beating something between two great stones. When he came back he craved pardon of the Sherif for having inadvertently eaten his bread with Turkish teeth, and displayed the broken remains of his rather fine Damascus set in his hand. Unfortunately, he could hardly eat anything at all afterward and went very sorrowfully till in Akaba the High Commissioner sent him an Egyptian dentist, who refurnished his mouth.
THE MARCH TO AKABA
From Wejh on May 9 Feisul sent off a small expedition of camel men under Sherif Nasir to take Akaba, 300 miles further north. They marched through the Hedjaz hills, picking up a few adherents, across a dreadful lava field, which foundered their camels, over the Hedjaz railway in a thunder of dynamite explosions, into the pathless central desert of Arabia, where they wandered for weeks in great pain of heat and hunger and thirst, losing many of their party and disheartening more. When they did reach water it was only to lose three more of their few men from snakebite, for the Wadi Sirhan is venomous. However, at length they reached the Howeitat tents, and under the burden of the tribe's most insistent hospitality spent some uneasy days. They had now marched some 400 miles and were getting short of food. Some of the party rested here to gather recruits, while others went out north and west to trouble the Turks by feints upon the railways of Syria and confuse them as to what they meant. They destroyed a bridge near Homs and one near Deraa and blew up a train near Amman.
The Turks believed that they must be in Wadi Sirhan, and concentrated their available cavalry about the Hauran and sent out all that could move into the desert after them. Nasir moved at once, south and west, and captured two stations near Katraneh. The Turks blew up the wells in the desert (Nasir had now learned to do with little water) and reinforced the threatened sector from Maan. This latter was, however, the area the Arabs really wanted, and a day later a section of the Howeitat, on June 30, wiped out the first Turkish post on the new motor road from Maan to Akaba, after the Turks had won a first success and had cut the throats of thirteen Arab women and children. News of their attack reached Maan, and the mass of the garrison there set out to relieve the post. That day Nasir occupied the railway near Maan and blew up a series of bridges and then threw himself between Maan and the Turkish relief column, which had reached its objective only to find the ground held by squadrons of wheeling vultures busy on their dead.
FIGHTING IN FURNACE HEAT
Throughout July 2 Nasir fought the Turks in a heat that made movement torture. The burning ground seared the skin off the forearms of our snipers, and the camels went as lame as the men with the agony of the sun-burned flints. The Turks were hemmed in to a gentle valley, with a large spring in the bottom. The Arabs were dry. They had rifles, and the Turks were hemmed into a gentle valley, kept up the fight till evening. At dusk Auda collected our fifty horsemen in a crooked valley about 300 yards from the Turks, and suddenly burst at them over a rise, galloping into the brown of them, shooting from the saddle as he came. The Turks broke in panic, as Turks often will, and after one wild burst of musketry scattered in all directions, while the rest of the Arab force dashed down the hillsides into the hollow as fast as their cantering camels could take them. In five minutes it had become a massacre. Some of the Turks got away in the gathering darkness, but the Arabs took and killed more than their own total numbers.
There were still four Turkish garrisons between Nasir and the sea. The nearest was overrun in half an hour; the next but one surrendered without a shot fired. The third was strongly placed, but the Arab leader announced that a sudden darkness at the third night hour would enable it to be rushed without loss—and the moon was good enough to be eclipsed that night. Fortified by such evident proof of ghostly alliance, the Arabs pressed on down the great road that the Turks had prepared for the invasion of Egypt. The fourth post fell back before our approach to the main position of Akaba, where the Howeitat tribesmen, before even we were near, clustered about them like hornets, sniping any head or body that showed and cutting off all egress.
FALL OF AKABA
They were six miles from the beach in the mouth of an immense ravine, impregnable from attack by the sea, as they knew, and we knew, but very open to a force taking them, as we were doing, unexpectedly from the east. When Nasir came up he tried to make them parley; the local Arabs fiercely refused. "They tore our men in four pieces between yoked mules, why should we spare them?"… but the Sherif after a day and a night of earnest work regained control of his men. He then, with only one companion, advanced into the open between the Arabs and the Turks, so that his men had perforce to hold their fire, and sent in a prisoner with the white flag to tell the Turks that all was up. Fortunately, the Turkish commander agreed, and the Arabs swept through his camp into the village of Akaba in a mad rush of joy. Our position, when we first arrived in Akaba, was miserable. We had no food, and hundreds of prisoners. They ate our riding camels, (we killed them two a day,) caught fish, and tried to cook the green dates, till the messengers, who had been sent off hastily to Egypt across the Sinai Desert, could send help and food by sea. Unfortunately, the camels by now had done 1,000 miles in five weeks, and were all jaded, so that it took the men two days to get to Suez, where Admiral Wemyss at once ordered a man-of-war at top speed to Akaba, with all the food that was to be found on the quays. That ship is gratefully remembered in the desert, for it saved 2,000 Arabs and 1,000 Turks from starvation.
THE WILDERNESS ROAD
Feisul came to Akaba in August, and once again his tactics and the color of the Arab movement had to change. The abandon of the early days, when each man had his camel and his little bag of flour and his rifle, was over. The force had to be organized and become responsible. No longer could Feisul throw himself into the thickest of the doubtful fight and by his magnetic leadership, and still more wonderful snap-shooting, turn the day in our favor. No longer could the Sherifs in glowing robes hurtle out in front of their men in heady camel charges and bring back spolia opima in their own hands. Even our wonderful Arab bodyguards—Central Arabia camel men—dressed in all the colors of the rainbow, only one degree less gorgeous than their camel trappings, had to be sacrificed. The Sherifian army now stood on the threshold of Syria, and its work was henceforward with the townsmen and the villagers—excellent people, but not the salt of the earth, as are the Arabs of the desert.
The desert was Feisul's; he had worked his miracle, and made the wilderness peace; but the wilderness was only our road, the means by which we could arrive at the cultivated places we wished to raze or occupy. Another sobering influence was the knowledge that we formed part of the army of General Allenby. Akaba was on his extreme right, and the Arab army formed his right wing. Our plans were only a part of his plans, instead of being joyous ventures of our own. The Arab Army, however unorthodox its elements, tried its best to fulfill the wishes of the Commander in Chief and to contribute its uttermost to his plans. In return he gave it the materials, the advice, the advisers, and the help it needed, and enabled Feisul to transform what had been a mob of Bedouin into a small but well made force of all arms.
CO-OPERATING WITH ALLENBY
The new Arab Army—now the right wing of General Allenby's army—was tried before the end of October, 1917, when 500 men of it, with two mountain guns and four machine guns, holding a selected position on the heights around Petro—the "rose red city half as old as time," whose ruins made notable the Nabathaean hills—held them against four Turkish infantry battalions, a cavalry regiment, half a mounted infantry regiment, six mountain guns, four field guns, and two machine-gun companies. The Turks attacked in three columns, drove back the Arabs at one point, and captured one mountain gun, but were counterattacked and driven in flight back across the plain. The Arab losses were heavy, but they retook the lost gun.
The Arab regular army then fell back from the hilltops because of the heavy snowfall of 1917-18. The Turks also had to fall back to near the railway, and there was only fighting of the Bedouin till Spring, when the Arab main army attacked Maan, between April 13 and 17, as their share of the British Amman attack. This phase of the operations has been dealt with by General Allenby in his last dispatch in full detail.
The Winter was, however, not uneventful for us, since Feisul tried, by means of the local tribes and peasantry, to share in the British descent to the Dead Sea and Jordan Valley. Sherif Nasir again led the forlorn hope, and again Auda abu Tayi joined us. There came also some of the Beni Sakhr clan from Moab. The force moved about the desert east of Maan, uneasily for a time, and then suddenly, in the first days of January, made an attack on the third railway station north of Maan, called Jurf. The Turks held the station buildings strongly and a covering knoll above it; but Nasir had with him a little mountain gun which knocked out the first Turkish gun, and so encouraged the Bedouin that they got on their camels and again repeated the camel charge that had won us the fight for Akaba. Bullets have little immediate effect on a camel that is going at twenty-five miles an hour, and before the Turks could do anything the Arabs were over the trenches and among the station buildings. The survivors of the garrison, some 200 in number, surrendered at discretion.
CAVALRY WIN A SEA FIGHT
From Jurf Nasir marched to Tafileh and summoned it to surrender. The Turkish garrison of 100 laughed at us; but Auda galloped up under their bullets to the east end of the town, where the market opens on to a little green place, and in his voice, which at its loudest carries above all the tumult of a melée, called on the dogs of villagers to hand over their Turks. All the Arab world knows Auda, and while they regard him as a most trying friend, love him as a national monument; so without more ado they surrendered themselves and their Turkish garrison.
Tafileh is a village of about 6,000 inhabitants, and we looked, with the reinforcement of its men, to do great things. As a beginning our horse, with the help of Abu Irgeig and the Arabs of Beersheba, charged one night up the east bank of the Dead Sea from its south end, flying through the defiles between the hills and the lake and over the Turk patrols before they could give warning, till at dawn they passed over the root of the flat promontory called the Lissan and came gently through the bushes till they were within easy shot of the little harbor where half the Turkish Dead Sea fleet was moored by cables to the shore.
The crews were on shore breakfasting, and the Arabs, by a swift cavalry charge, were able to capture the Turkish fleet with its crews, sink the ships, and get the officers and sailors away with them before the garrison on the bluffs above had realized that irregularities were being committed. The "fleet" were of course only motor launches and fishing vessels; but there are few sea forces that have been captured by cavalry, and the disgust of the two very smart naval officers we took gave us great comfort.
FIGHTING AT TAFILEH
Meanwhile the Turks of Damascus had become alarmed at the Arab progress, and had sent down their G. O. C. Amman with a composite regiment of infantry, some cavalry, and two mountain howitzers to turn us out of Tafileh. He came along delicately, laying his telephone lines and making his roads, and with him were the new civil staff for Tafileh and the equipment of the new Post Office there. We got in touch with him on Jan. 24, 1918, and found him unpleasantly strong. In fact, he pushed us nearly out of Tafileh that night. The flashes of the Turkish rifles at the crest of the great gorge in which Tafileh lies were very visible, and there ensued a great panic in the town. All the women screamed with terror, and threw their household goods and children out of their houses into the streets, through which came plunging mounted Arabs, shooting busily at nothing in particular.
At dawn, however, we were still in the place, and were able to send up a few men with two automatic rifles to assist the peasantry. This improved things, but was obviously insufficient, and the fighting became very hot, with a good deal of shelling by the Turks and huge bursts of machine-gun fire from their twenty-seven machine guns. A shell knocked out one of our automatic rifles, and the other finished its ammunition. So we chose out a second position about two miles in the rear of the flint ridge we were actually holding, and sent back to collect all the men we could upon it.
As soon as they began to appear we sent back the thirty peasants (on foot) who were helping us in the forward position, and held it for another fifteen minutes only by thirty Howeitat horsemen. By then things had become quite impossible, with the air thick with bullets, and reply from our side nearly out of the question, so the horsemen mounted again and scampered back to the reserve line. The Turks occupied our old ridge a few minutes later, and were obviously astonished to see the second line in front of them, with a mob of men walking about on top of it. We had now about 300 men, and showed them all we could.
Shortly afterward Sherif Zeid joined us, with one mountain gun, four machine guns, and seven automatic rifles; also about 200 more men. We sent the Arab horse away to the Turkish left to turn their distant flank, and a peasant force, with some automatics, to turn their right flank. Meanwhile in the centre we demonstrated, and fired our mountain gun, and carried out some astonishing tactics, till the outflanking parties were in position. We then attacked boldly across the hollow between the two ridges direct at the Turkish centre. As we were only about half their strength, this amused them so much that they did not notice our outlying parties till they opened fire and shot down all the Turkish machine gunners. At the same moment we charged (camels, horses, and men pell-mell) and carried their main position with its fifteen Maxims before sunset.
The peasantry from miles round were rallying to us, and met the broken Turks falling back before our men, who were tired out and very hungry, since we had been fighting for thirty hours. The local people therefore relieved us of the duty of pursuit, and filled our place so satisfactorily that only about eighty of the Turks, got away, and they lost the whole of their animals, carts, guns, and machine guns.
A HARD WINTER
After this affair we were in good spirits, and foresaw ourselves meeting the British shortly at Jericho. However, things went wrong. It was partly the reaction after a great effort, partly the stimulus we had given to the Turks, partly the awful weather—for just after the end of January the Winter broke for good, and we had days of drenching rain, which made the level ground one vast mud slide, on which neither man nor camel could pass. When this cleared we had snow, and snow, and snow. The hills round Tafileh are 5,000 feet high, and open on the east to all the winds that Arabia can send, and conditions soon became impossible.
Snow lay on the ground for three weeks. If the camels were strong and fit they would march for one day or two days through a coating six inches thick; but in all the hollows were drifts a yard deep, and at these our unfortunate men had to dismount and dig a way through with their bare hands. The Bedouin had never remained in these hills for Winter before, and gradually quit them this year also. It increased one's misery to see below one, in Wadi Arabah, the level land of the Dead Sea depression flooded with sunlight and to know that down there was long grass sown with flowers and the fresh milk and comfort of Spring in the desert. The Arabs wear only a cotton shirt and a woolen cloak, Winter and Summer, and were altogether unfitted for weather like this; very many of them died of the cold.
One curious incident was when a party of 150 Arabs went out to raid the railway near Maan. They marched from Akaba, with its sweltering heat, for sixty miles and halted for the night. Next morning they climbed the escarpment, which looked, they said, like a negro with a white skull cap on, and marched through powdery snow till dark, which proved windy and with faint attempts at a blizzard. They then camped in a threefoot watercourse, barracking their camels for protection against the wall of the gulley to save them from the pitiless wind. They themselves lay down on the other side of the gulley and slept. It was a bitter night, and no one was lively enough to get up and look about him, as it snowed gently, and every one shivered all the time with the cold. At dawn, however, they found the side of the gulley where the camels were one smooth drift of snow, out of which, like dark islands, were sticking the humps and saddles of their beasts. They set to, with the large iron spoons in which coffee beans are roasted, and dug out many of them—but all except three were dead! The jest was our marching home those long miles barefooted and laden with all our baggage, while the local attempts at a blizzard became more and more realistic.
On another occasion Sherif Feisul sent out a party of thirty-four camel riders to carry money to his brother in Tafileh, eighty miles away—and four days afterward one solitary rider, the only one of the party, struggled in. After this we all gave up touring the hills of either Edom or Moab in Winter.
For many months whenever there was no operation in hand some one on the Arab front (which was 400 miles long, and was held by some 40,000 Arabs) would say, "Let us undertake a railway raid," and something more or less exciting would happen. Unquestionably the greatest game of all railway work is blowing up trains. Once in September, 1917, an Arab party marched out of Akaba with explosives to Rum, a spring in the most wonderful red sandstone cliffs that look too regular to be natural and are yet far too overwhelming to be artificial. It is like an immense empty triumphal road, waiting for a procession or review greater than the world can bring it. At Rum we collected a raiding party of Howeitat. Though the very pick of the fighting men of Arabia, they were the most cranky, quarrelsome collection imaginable. In six days there had to be settled fourteen private feuds, twelve assaults with weapons, four camel thefts, one marriage portion, two evil eyes, and bewitchment. It took longer than making out company returns in triplicate.
We reached the line, and wandered up and down it, by day and night, keeping hidden till we found a place that pleased us, and there we laid an electric mine. The line crossed a valley on a high bank 500 yards long, pierced by three small bridges about 200 yards from each other. We laid the mine over the southernmost, connected it electrically with the firing mechanism under the middle one, and arranged for two Lewis guns to take position under the northernmost one. From this northern bridge ran up a long transverse gulley westward. It was about two feet deep and sprinkled with broom bushes, behind which the men (on foot) and the Lewis guns hid till wanted. On the first day no train came; on the second a water train and a line patrol together. On the third, about 8 A. M., a train of twelve wagons came down from Maan and passed slowly over the embankment. The Bedouin were all lying behind their bushes, the Lewis gunners were under their arch, and the firing party under theirs, dancing a wild war dance as the train rumbled over their heads. One man was left right out in the open to give the signal to the firing party when to fire the mine; he looked a harmless enough Arab, and the officers in the train amused themselves by firing at him with their pistols. As soon, however, as the locomotive was over the mine he jumped up and waved his cloak, and instantly there was a shattering roar, a huge cloud of smoke and dust, the clanking of iron and the crushing of woodwork, and the whirring noise of the fragments of steel from the explosion sailing through the air.
CHARGING THE WRECK
Till the smoke cleared there was dead silence, and then the two Lewis guns which had come out to right and left at the edges of their abutments raked the troops as they leaped out of the derailed trucks. The Bedouin opened a rapid fire also, and in six minutes the affair was over, as the Arabs charged home on the wreck. We found that we had more prisoners than we wanted, some seventy tons of foodstuffs, and many little things like carpets and military stores. The Bedouin plundered at lightning speed, while we signed the duplicate way-bills and returned one copy to the wounded guard, whom we meant to leave in place. Then we fired the trucks and drove off our now overladen camels before the relief parties of Turks, who were hurrying up from north and south, could cut us off.
Raids did not always go so well, but many of them were very damaging to the Turk. Thus it took him months to repair the break in the line made by Sherif Nasir in one raid about seventy miles north of Maan on May 18, 1918. All his operations in the Maan area were delayed until General Allenby was ready to take the offensive in the Autumn. Sheik Auda did a good thing during that fighting, for the Turks sent down the last survivors of their last company of camel corps. They penned their camels in a yard of the station while they fought. Auda could not resist the temptation to loot, and dashed in on his mare with twelve of his tribe; and for the loss of one man and two horses they brought out the whole twenty-five riding camels from within 100 yards of the Turkish machine gun. It was a very wonderful sight.
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013.
If you appreciate the articles, read the e-novel informed by them —
THE HEADLONG FURY
A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald