Memoirs & Diaries - Tell-El-Sheria
When the 321 V.C.'s sat down to dine with the Prince of Wales on November 9th, 1929, one man present, Lieut.-Colonel Arthur Drummond Borton, V.C., D.S.O., might possibly have experienced just one tinge of regret. For had the great function taken place two days earlier it would have coincided with the twelfth anniversary of his winning the coveted honour.
I know just a little about the winning of that V.C., and the man who won it, but I doubt whether the colonel would recall the fellow he swore at during that most critical moment of his career.
It happened in Palestine on November 7th, 1917. The day is Wednesday. We are hard on the heels of the Turk. Gaza has fallen, we have taken Beersheba, and are now on the way to Sheria. There are wells at Sheria, and we are very thirsty!
From dawn all Tuesday we have ploughed through sand and sun, no food to speak of - a nibble of bully and biscuit: and, though warned at the start to hang on to our water, there isn't a man with a fly's bath in his bottle when we come to a halt in the evening.
The grit on my teeth! The mud on my tongue! Lord! I can taste it now! Trekking the best part of a month, we are tired, ragged, verminous, and itchy with septic sores. Now we have halted and know we are close to the Turk.
Petulantly through the twilight half-spent bullets whine out their last breath overhead. Nobody cares; we are too fagged out to heed them. Dropping our packs, we unload the mules and feed the poor brutes a mouthful of corn.
We stretch our backs on the warm sand. Our aching backs! Oh, for a little green apple to quench this blistering thirst! Our spirits are low with fatigue and thirst and dirt. This hopeless, unending misery, this madness, this ultimate futility!
Would I could sleep for ever. Would I could wake in the morning and know all this for a nightmare. Ah me, have we not dreamed thus a thousand times through twenty unthinkable months.
I sleep. The four hours seem but a minute before I am awakened with the toe of a corporal's boot.
I rise and shiver, hating that corporal. I dress as a dog might shake himself. It is dark, but away to the left the sky glows red. I hear faint crackling sounds. The air is full of whistling lead.
I groan and drag my stiff legs over to my mule and tug and punch him into his harness. Taking his cue from me, he shows his teeth in a succession of mighty yawns. Shadowy forms are everywhere moving to and fro in the darkness; tired and expressionless faces show palely out of the gloom, and pass.
Ah, we're in for it now. Grimly I smile as I hump my clobber to the pile and pitch it with the rest. I meet Silburn on the way.
"Another stunt, Sunbeam?"
"Dunno, Gunga. Looks like it."
"What's that light over there?"
"Johnny getting breezy. Blowing up his ammunition dumps."
"Best thing he can do with 'em," I grumble. "Why not let him get on with it!"
"Fall in for rum!"
"That's about corpsed it! " mutters Tich Webster, divining that not for nothing is he to get a noggin of rum in the Plain of Sharon.
But the rum's good - dashed good it is! It stings our leathery tongues and stops our shivering. It calms my damnable nerves. I join a little group; Baker is there, the Welsh miner, our last remaining tenor, the red-headed, unquenchable "Scrounger".
"What's doing, Scrounger?"
"Oh, nothing much. Clearing snipers. Colonel can't sleep."
I smile sceptically. "Who told you that?"
"Harold," says Baker.
"I thought as much."
"A knowing bird, that mule of yours, Scrounger?" sneers Holland.
"He is," replies Baker. "Fed on bully and four-by-two, is Harold. In return for which he tells me things."
"He's a b-blatant liar," growls Durrant. "That's w-what he is. It's b-bullets 'e wants, not b-bully!"
Then Durrant is ashamed of himself. "Sorry, Baker. M-my n-nerves," he says, and turns away.
"I suppose you didn't ask him if we're getting any water to-night?" enquires Evans.
"I did," answers Scrounger. "And he kicked me in the --!"
I go. Yes, as always, the officers will know all there is to be known when we start. We shall know nothing. We batten on rumours. Rumours! And are led like lambs to the slaughter. My blood boils. Are we such cowards we may not be told?
"Fall in! No noise! No talking!"
We line up. Bombs and additional bandoliers of ammunition are served out. Ten rounds are loaded into the rifle magazines. Things look bad. Contrary to orders, I slip a cartridge "up the spout," adjusting the safety-catch.
Now we are shuffling out over the plain. Someone coughs; entrenching tools, haversacks, empty water-bottles clatter and rattle; here and there an iron-shod heel strikes a flint, igniting a shower of sparks; a man stumbles - and that man surely curses.
Rob and I march side by side. We talk little. A Yorkshireman is Rob. His calmness reassures me. His sturdy bulk is a tower of strength to me. Vive le rum!
We trudge on in silence. I think of those at home - all warm and clean in bed. Perhaps they turn restlessly now and then and think of me. May they sleep deep and long to-night. We have work to do. Keep your eyes skinned, lad. Steady and cool! Don't fumble. Strike-swift as the lightning! I feel braced up and fit. God bless the distillers of rum!
I glance at Rob. His face in the dark is bloodless and dirty; there are streaks of grime on the cheeks where sweat has dried in the night; and a four-day growth of beard gives him a strangely spiritual expression. I think: This might be the face of Christ! A distant look in his eyes, has Rob. I know. He's away and playing on his old violin.
"How feeling, Rob?" But Rob makes no reply. Then the silvery voice of Baker, just behind me, breaks the silence, singing:
How lovely are the Messengers
That preach us the gospel of Peace!...
"Put a sock in it, Baker!" says a sergeant, irritably.
The roar of the burning dumps grows louder; and flames, leaping into view, send out cascades of sparks; we hear the crack of rifles; bullets whistle shriller, filling the night with little spiteful devils. We stop to unload the mules. I strap on my chest and back two wallets of spare Lewis gun magazines. The weight of them! We are leaving the mules behind. I am the mule - a proper soldier now!
And now, suddenly, we enter a world writhing in its last agony... Deafening crashes, flames and smoke, unearthly boomings and rumblings!
Above this din comes the splutter of machine guns; and, from a towering structure to the left, massive fragments of masonry are being pitch forked into the night! It is grand! The Turk is blowing up the world!
"Shiverin' saints!" comes a voice.
"Strike me pink!" says another; and I catch a glimpse of an illuminated face uplifted for a moment in the glare.
Now we are off at the double. We zigzag about; then, swinging to the right, plunge over the edge of a deep but narrow wady, and fall into dust and darkness. We regain our feet, bewildered, shaken. Officers dart hither and thither; shouting orders.
"Steady now, boys! Steady! Lock-up, lock-up! Keep together!... For God's sake, don't bunch up!"
Then out of the gloom and the confused medley of men emerges the colonel. I see him in the light of the conflagration. Like the rest, he has a steel helmet on his head; but he wears no tunic, his shirt-sleeves are rolled up past his elbows. How clean and neat and fresh he looks!
His hair, sleek and parted, shines in the glare. He is lean and tall; his face is red. He carries his head as though his neck was stiff. His gait seems a shade unsteady. He waves a cane in his hand, and, in the crook of his other arm, he hugs a football! Borton is laughing!
"Twenty-second Queen's!" he bellows. "It's your turn now to cover yourselves with glory! Follow me!"
"Stone me paralytic!" gasps Tich.
He leads us along the wady, every gun in creation going mad at us. In that dusty inferno we are merely shadows. We come to an opening in the wady. Borton gets across, but not so others following; they seem to stagger and wilt and crumple up and fade away into the gloom. A murderous fire from concealed machine guns sprays death along that alley...
"Stand fast!" cries the colonel. "Now quickly... in twos and threes!"
Rob and I plunge into the abyss. I hear a cry and Rob sinks into the dust. A momentary halt. I see heaving breasts all round me, and drawn, white faces. I hear curses unmentionable. I curse unmentionably too. But there's one man as cool as a water-melon - a man with a stiff neck, and a football under his arm!
"Fix bayonets!" yells the colonel. And the shining things leap from the scabbards and flash in the light as they click on the standards. They seem alive and joyous; they turn us into fiends, thirsty for slaughter. We scramble out of the wady.
"Charge!" And away goes the colonel, flourishing his ludicrous cane!
The hail of lead! We greet it with a blood-curdling shout, ripping our throats; and, as surely as I have eyes, there's Borton driving ahead, taking the hill at a bound, and kicking the football!
Breathless, we gain the top. The Turks have bolted. Torn tents flap in the wind; pots and pans are about our feet. Away now from the flaming dumps we pick our way at a walk, peering into the dark, bayonets ready to stab. Then I go sprawling over a vessel of porridge standing among the remains of a weed fire. I rip out an oath as an ember burns me.
Scrambling up, a sticky mess, I flounder over something that is warm and groans as I clutch it. Again I stagger forward, and a strand of barbed wire catches me in the leg. I tear myself out of its grip. Near me, Scrounger Baker trips over a tent rope, and, attempting to rise, is shot.
A raking fire sweeps the darkness, but still we advance. The ground is rough and treacherous. Men are falling. Where's the colonel? Has he also stopped one? I hear his voice! God save Borton! We know him. The mad major of Gallipoli!
He'll fetch us through, this man with a broken neck! Suddenly the darkness lifts, paling to grey, and a ridge looms out ahead. "Down! Down! Down!" and flat as a sack I go. Men are moving on the skyline. What use to take aim!
I blaze away madly, striving to silence those swine on the ridge. I sweat. I gibber with glee when a form flings up its arms, dances a second between earth and sky, and vanishes.
A little ahead of me, on rising ground, lie two pals working a Lewis gun; its bark, its spiteful rat-tat-tat, is music to me.
Spells of the tensest concentration are followed by moments of terrible fatigue. My strength ebbs away; I feel unutterably weak; I could sleep. There succeed intervals when my senses seem to stalk abroad, icily alert and alive; periods when my mind is a whirling wheel, my brain a furnace white-hot, my pulse a sledge-hammer.
When my nerves seem about to snap there come instants of exquisite calm. Death! What does it matter? I am alone. Surrounded by friend and foe, I am alone in the world! But the will to live wells up - the desire to live is a torment, a torture, a devilish, damnable agony!
A man near by groans and rolls over. A yard or so away an officer lies quiet as though sleeping. I see a friend writhe and twist. I hear a man scream. A sergeant, rising from the ground, staggers forward, shot in the back! I hear sobbing. No stretcher bearers here. Vaguely, as in a dream, I am conscious of flashes and rumblings overhead and regular crashes and slams to our rear. Where's our artillery? Where are the guns? Bring up the guns, O God!
The barrel of my rifle blisters my fingers; then the bolt sticks fast, fouled with grit. I tear and swear at it, and my hand goes stiff with cramp. The reeking breech sickens me. Now I become aware that the gun ahead is silent, and motionless the men beside it: one on his back with his eyes open, his hand outstretched as though beckoning; the other, his head on his arm.
I look at the thing in a daze. It is getting lighter. A clammy sweat breaks out on me. I am a Lewis gunner! Turning my head, I gaze at the ridge. My hand shakes as I grip my rifle and take aim; but the bolt is jammed, the trigger limp. I lie there panting.
"You're a coward - a dirty, crawling coward! That one gun... that one gun might stop those ...curs!"
A stone, struck by a bullet, jumps from the ground and hits me on the knuckle. It stings me to terrible anger. Next to me, Tom Rolls gives a yell as blood spurts from his wrist and splashes me in the face. I spring to my feet and race to the gun, heaving aside a corpse to get to it. I lie down to the gun, between the two dead men, and... I feel fine!
But the magazine will not rotate. I strain and strain at it. The cocking-handle is stuck fast. I squeeze the trigger. I change the magazine. I talk to it, swear at it, do impossible things to it.
Then, glancing down the barrel casing to the sights, I see that the muzzle is frayed and torn and broken, and the gas-regulator blown clean away. The gun is as dead as the men beside it.
At this moment the colonel appears. His face is black and sweaty; his shirt is torn to ribbons. "Don't lie here!" he roars. "Come on! ...With me!"
We scramble to our feet and follow him down a long, rocky slope in the half-light, but heavy fire breaks out anew. We cannot stand it, and are forced into the dust again. Ripping out the bolt of my rifle, I lick it clean, spitting out the grit. It is hot and scorches my tongue.
Now a worse enemy attacks. Shells scream about us, exploding overhead, on the ground, everywhere; they tear up the dust; they cover us with stones; the air is a hell of whizzing shrapnel.
I see Harman with his back ripped open. We bite into the earth. Our mouths are full of muck. Not so Borton. He's on his feet (has he yet been off his feet?); he crouches, his neck thrust outward. His grey-blue eyes are searching, searching...
"Ah, good!" he cries, and, tossing away his cane, pulls out his revolver. "Now I have them! Follow me!"
I go staggering after him down the slope. Had every man been shot he would have gone alone. Dimly ahead I see a hedge of stunted cactus swathed in smoke from which come flashes - white, knife-like flashes. Then I see figures moving, and, pausing, fire from my hip.
"Don't stand there like a palsied idiot!" shouts the colonel. "Come on!"
I go on. Something warm is coursing down my face and trickles into my eyes, half-blinding me. I stumble on - my head is bursting...
"Camarade! Camarade!" Men in grey-coloured uniforms and "pork-pie" caps are coming forward, their arms above their heads.
"Austrians!" The colonel's voice is hoarse and husky. He rams his revolver into a man's ear.
Beyond - across the open - men run for their lives; and I, breathless, land up against the smoking nozzle of an artillery field gun, the point of my bayonet stuck into the tunic-button of a burly Austrian bombardier; while the colonel, with a man or two, strives desperately - but without success - to get another gunner to turn his gun and fire on his fleeing comrades!
Daybreak! I stand panting before my prisoner, a breath from whose smoke-blackened mouth could bowl me over. He towers above me, smiling. I am trembling.
"Mercy, Johnny," says he quietly, dropping a sooty hand and holding it out to me. "You brave feller. You haf face all bloody! Have mercy!"
He smiles. He looks a decent sort. His glasses and ginger hair remind me of Baker. Scrounger Baker! Rob! It is touch and go with the Austrian. Blood for blood! He smiles. Camarade! I cannot kill him..
Next to me on my right, little Sid Avery has a similar problem confronting him, and quickly he solves it, as well as mine:
"Cigarettes... or yer life!" puffs Sid.
Private William G. Johnson joined London Rifle Brigade, November 1915. Age twenty-three. Volunteered for transfer to 60th (London) Division for active service. Sent to 2nd Battalion 22nd London Regt. ("Queen's") June 1916. July 1916, France. Five months in trenches. January 1917, Salonika. Three months in mountains on Doiran front, and three months on Vardar Front. Took part in operations against Bulgars. July 1917, Palestine. Took part in operations against Turks, resulting in capture of Gaza and Beersheeba, the wells at Tell-el-Sheria, Nebi Samwil, etc. At the capture of Jerusalem, December 9th, 1917. Also in engagements around Jericho, crossing of the Jordan, and the attacks across the Jordan Valley and Moab Mountains on Es Salt and Amman in the Hedjaz country in an attempt to link up with Lawrence of Arabia. Took part in forced marches across Palestine to sea above Jaffa, which ended in final rout of Turks on September 19th, 1918. at Tul Keram, towards Damascus.
First published in Everyman at War (1930), edited by C. B. Purdom.
Photographs courtesy of Photos of the Great War website.
"Wipers" was the British nickname for the Belgian town Ypres.
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