Memoirs & Diaries - Those Desert Days
It is dawn and we are marching towards the sunrise. Khaki-clad British soldiers with bare, brown knees and wide-brimmed topees swing cheerfully along, marching to they know not where, for at nightfall we shall bivouac somewhere in the Arabian Desert. Behind us plod the camels, carrying the kits and the very few necessities of desert warfare. They are controlled by coloured-turbaned Indian drabis, who know these ships of the desert as a captain knows his ship.
And then come the Gurkha boys, with a merry stride. Every one of these stocky little fellows wears a beaming face - all ready and willing to march until their limbs sink beneath them. Some are leading the chafing mules, which clink noisily in the harness, and pull along the iron wagons which carry the precious water-tanks.
At the rear slow-moving oxen draw the small, dome-shaped wagons with the Red Cross painted on the sides.
We are approaching the last outpost of the Basra Cantonment. The next camp is 140 miles away. Where, only the scouts know. It does not matter where; the order is to march hard and fight hard.
We march on. Loneliness closes around, creeping, sinister and comfortless, till all that is real loses its reality in a monotonous circle of horizon and hard, cracked sand.
"Keep step, mate!" says one to another faltering in front. It is easier going in step. "I'm dying for a drink," says another. But the allowance is a pint a day, to be drunk when ordered.
We trudge on, and men bow beneath the weight of ammunition, equipment, and rifle. The brazen sun burns; clothes become wet with sweat; topees heavy and big. At hourly halts we sink to the ground, and rise again with stiff joints and aching shoulders. At given times we drink and march again, until the sun sinks low and tinges the desert red.
A halt is made. The camels are unloaded and fed, the water-tanks stacked together, and those detailed dig a trench round the camp.
Field kitchens are soon brewing tea, and a frugal meal of bully beef, hard biscuits, and milkless tea is taken by famished men. At last blankets are unpacked from the camel lines, and those fortunate ones who are not on guard sink like logs and remain so until Reveille.
The camp awakes by a shrill voice calling: "Camels! Fetch the camels!" Fellows stir in their blankets, as stiff and weary as though they had just laid themselves down. It is a little before dawn. The moon has sunk low.
There is a roaring, and the camels, as irritable and as tired as all, loom in the morning mist.
Blankets are rolled and packed on the camels' backs: bitter, black tea and some more biscuits are swallowed for breakfast; and then we move on again as the sun lifts its dreaded golden light over the horizon.
A corporal plays a tune on his mouth organ to keep spirits up. Plucky devil! He is as tired as the rest of us, and yet he forces out that little extra bit, and is admired for it. A man collapses in a heap, sweat pouring out of his pores. But someone bathes his face with a moist handkerchief and passes on. The ambulance is behind!
Suddenly there is a halt. What's that? Bones? Yes, a camel's. But the others, white and glistening... and the skull and ivory teeth? A Gurkha's, we are told; and our plight, too, if we fall and faint by the way. A sergeant gives a ghastly shriek, and begins to charge his magazine desperately with live rounds. He is grabbed by an officer and held to the ground, shrieking the while: "See them? Look! Thousands of them-all charging upon us!"
He struggles frantically, roaring like a mad bull, until the sound makes the marrow creep. Then he falls back unconscious... and the column passes on, leaving him behind till the ambulance comes.
Evening again: camp is made and trenches dug. But the order is "Stand to". Hostile Arabs are near; and through the night every eye is skinned to pierce the darkness for the glint of a curved knife or rifle.
Dawn comes. Men's eyes are heavy, and limbs weary and limp. But still we plod on. Nerves are keyed high: a small, prickly bush to be avoided or a clump of hard earth irritates. A soldier looks at his comrade and sees fixed, glazed eyes and cracked lips. His own tongue is swollen, furry, and leathery.
Corporal Ben tries at his mouth organ again, but fails at the first notes, for his lips are blistered and cracked. The only thought is for water.
A sparkling waterfall to lie and drown under, drinking, drinking; the tap at home; the green, green water in stagnant pools - all would taste delicious.
We come to a stagnant oasis, fast drying and black with dead insects and flies. And deaf to the warning shouts of the medical officer and others, many sink upon their knees and drink.
At midday there is an unexpected halt, and the scouts ride into the horizon and are lost to sight. We rest our lean, unshaven heads on haversacks and sleep fitfully. There is no sound save the jingling of the mules in the harness. Even the camels rest.
The column stirs again, though no one knows the reason why. Camp lines are marked out, deeper trenches dug, every man stands at the parapets, officers consult together.
A mug of warm tea, beef, and biscuits brighten spirits a little; but the word is passed to keep a sharp look-out, for Arabs are near.
A large-limbed man falls to the floor of the trench, groaning in agony and bent double, his knees pressing against his chest.
The medical officer is summoned, and comes with two orderlies with a stretcher. He knows the curse that has stricken the regiment: he had warned us that in that green pool, passed a few hours before, there lurked the germs of cholera.
Men fall quickly after that, at the very thought of having swallowed the stuff. Corporal Ben and myself are left in the trench where there had stood a dozen men. Corporal Ben who still smiles with lips that quiver, and whose bloodshot eyes are heavy with sleep.
Evening comes; and the moon shines and the stars. And around we lonely two at the parapet looms the desert, ghostly, still, and sinister.
We do not speak, or know how our comrades fare near by. We gaze into the night, tired soldiers and weary - too tired to care for life.
Dawn stirs the darkness. The early mists cling to the ground.
They are there! right in front of us! - a good 600 Arab horsemen. But the sight does not rouse the sluggish pulses of the soldiers.
Volleys are fired - rapid, continuous volleys which make gaps in the Arab lines, but the fighting blood of our men is cold.
The Arabs charge; are beaten back like a wave against a rock; and then there is a silence.
An orderly arrives, grey with sand and sickness: "Beat a rearguard action quickly, and join the Gurkha boys!"
And Corporal Ben smiles. "Retreat before them?" he says slowly, wearily raising his heavy lids... "We British retreat!"
He jumps to the top of the parapet and, kneeling, charges his magazine full ten rounds. He fires off five of them. Then a bullet enters his brain. He rolls over with a sigh.
Private Robert Harding served in the ranks of the 1/4th Battalion Dorset Regt., Territorials, from September 1914 till early 1916; from 1916-1918 was attached as Staff clerk to Headquarters, 15th (Indian) Division.
First published in Everyman at War (1930), edited by C. B. Purdom.
Photographs courtesy of Photos of the Great War website.
A "chit" was British slang for a piece of paper.
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