The Kia ora coo-ee : the magazine for the ANZACS in the Middle East, 1918
On the Big Stunt
Before sunrise the horses were bearing the weight of the wagon in the collar as they had borne it these many days back, with but little rest since Beersheba. Through the morning and afternoon it had steadily gnawed into their energy as they toiled silently over the quivering plains, up across rocky knolls, through sunken wadis, or sometimes through the white dust of a road. But always they were moving; always the task done meant but the beginning of the next; and yet while the sun was up, while the salt sweat still dropped from the sunk flanks to make tiny blobs of mud in the powdered earth, there were new jobs and pressing tasks to be done.
Night, brushing away the last beam of light, hid the earth beneath her purple cloak, and signalled the end of further pursuit to the fighting men. Our little party on the rise anticipated the home camp, ahead. They topped the rise and the "lead" pulled his pair across to the centre of the road again. The wagon ran easily down the gradient, making the brakes creak and scrape, clamped by the indifferent brakeman.
"There's a bog ahead, Charlie; ease her off and lead over by the bush!" Brakes loose, the wagon ran free. Seeing the track to follow, the "lead" hurried his team.
"'Baldy!' 'Ginger!' Come over, you beauty!
You-" Whish! The short whip descended again and again. The team, slow-toiling a minute ago, jerked taught the traces along their full length. Down hill, the swelling necks and knotted muscles of the brutes were a writhing mass of energy. Hoofs slid and scraped and pounded the clayey earth, but the wagon failed to clear that two feet bog of clay. The fore wheels buried to the axle while the beaten team stood and drooped with heaving flanks.
Slowly the "lead" turned round in his saddle to see what was doing behind, and slowly turning back again, pulled across to the right, then across to the left, tnen to the centre again, with the same result as in the last attempt.
Little was spoken. After perhaps two or three minutes the "lead" threw his leg across and came to the ground. Quietly he walked back where Others slowly followed him. Darkness was complete now. but all examined the bog with Spluttering matches, and perhaps Charlie or "Happy" grunted a few curses under adrawling breath, and mumbled their conclusions on the plan of action in chopped phrases. Only one thing to do, hop out, and by main strength help the team out of the hole.
The men lay into the load with their splendid strength while the raucous voice of the lead driver managing the team broke into the night air like a clarion—"Baldy!" The startled horses threw their massed weight suddenly into the traces, whip lashes cracked on the ground about the hoofs, groans of straining endeavour swayed into the night air and gradually hushed away again as the wagon drew free.
An old-fashioned hooded cart passed, with a hunched peasant driving a small, bony horse; flashes of white figurts and others in coloured dresses flitted like phantoms along the road way; and out of the night timid eyes peered at the strange spectacle. Regardless of the wondrous scene around them, the sombre, dust-splashed figures clambered to the saddle again and moved off. Mile upon mile they travelled, the horses slowly plodding the creeping highway, swinging down through the streets of some picturesque Jewish village, worming indifferently through high mud-walled and cactus-hedged lanes, again tramping the lonely roads upon the open plain, A sudden topping of a rise showed a crowd of people in the streets of a little village ahead. Through the open streets of scattered houses, through the open lanes between orange groves and out on to the road again,
"Saieda!-," a voice hailed from the darkness.
"Ay! Freddy. That you?- Hold hard a minute; where's the Squadron?"
"Dunno—who's that?—Roy?" the horseman riding ahead of the wagon shouted back at the darkness.
'"Yes. I'm here with the G.S; and she's broken down." The voice grew nearer the while as the speaker worked forward in the darkness towards the cable-wagon. Then the horseman asked: "What's the matter"—to receive the answer:
"Well, that-wheel's been 'cark' all the while and the bog's finished her off. I told 'Erb about it at Saba.
"She's gone altogether?"
"Well, no. But I can't go any further in the dark. I've just dumped round here in the oranges with the mob.
The "pip, pip" of a motor bike came floating up the road.
"H-A-Y! Lad!" yelled two voices. "Where's this road Jead to?"
The Don R. pulled up as he reached them and flashed his light over the two figures, one mounted and the other playing with the horse's nose as he stood at its head; the whirr of his engine dying away. "To Jaffa."
"Do vou know where the Anzac Sig. Squadron is?"
"No, Choom, I don't; I joost coom from Ramleh."
"An' does this road lead to Ramleh, too?"
'No; y' can get theer if y' coot acrass where the cable tees into t' telegraph line, an' yer'll coom art by t' convent." (They did not know the convent from the tomb of Aaron).
"Right o; thanks " The motor bike disappeared into the darkness again, while the two Bill-Jims, possessed now of all the information they required to investigate the country ahead, settled the business on hand.
They climbed once more to the saddle, and the horses, plodded, ahead again whilst the cheery crowd remaining behind filled the night air with a multitude of various and picturesque "So-longs".
Time passed as before. The men dozed along the road to the plod of hoofs, the creak of harness, the rumble of the wagon. Presently, across on the left, two lights, a red and a green, rose above the top of a knoll. They were strung from a white pole and looked to be close at hand, but were a long way off yet. That mattered little, and there was no need to tell the "lead" to turn in that direction, for they were already hone. Regardless of every obstacle that might lay hiding in the dark of the country they turned into, the "lead" drove straight ahead.
No measure of language could portray the feeling of relief and comfort that crept over the tired figures of the men as they drew into the lines of picketed horses strung out hastily between wagons or tied to the ground ropes, and heard voices shouting directions from the firelight and darkness ahead.
"You'll find plenty of room down by Dawkin's wagon at the end, Freddy."
The wagon which had halted, waiting for the "office" where to pull in, started off and stopped as suddenly. The driver on the "lead" pair reined back, knotting the three reins in a bunch, pulled them to the left, and then, as they suddenly jumped forward at his word, swept them swiftly round through the litter and confusion of the camp. Carts, horses, piled and scattered gear, fires, billies, recumbent and snoring or yawning figures, he passed, and with a neatness that would seem stark impossibility to a layman even in daylight, avoided all these.
Three minutes later every horse had cast the last piece of harness and had its nose buried in the feed bag. And while this pleasant grubbing of the horses rose, a never ceasing, monotonous crunch, in the air. the men split packing deal and old rail, gathered bushes, and generally dived into the absorbing task of getting billies boiled.
A little way back in the darkness an officer stumbled along through the obstacles, seeking some particular individual. He found at last the newly-arrived team. "Better not break it too sudden," he thought, and spotted the sergeant. They talked for two minutes.... Freddy came over to the crowd.
"Hook in, boys! Hook in the wagons at the igri. Put the two full drums on and drop the empties. Got to go out again."
"Yes; got to be done—Second Brigade."
If they hadn't worked with a cable wagon sinre Romani—well, "they wouldn't have believed it!" Ten minutes later they filed away and were hidden behind the veil of night again till the morrow.