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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 69

Chapter IV

Chapter IV.

Good water was a very scarce commodity for some time, it was very brackish; indeed, it must have been about half and half—a drink I am very partial to out here—but then it meant half sea water and half fresh, mixed. Then there was a contract with the Arabs of the mainland, and they brought in plenty on camels, in skins—about eight of the skins would be on each camel. It was rumoured that this water cost a rupee (2/-) a gallon. When it is stated that each man was allowed three gallons a day for all purposes, it will be seen that our water cost a very tidy sum. Condensing engines were erected eventually, and the water was better.

In March, 1858, the usual supplies were not permitted to come in, and the result was a force of about 600 were despatched out to enforce the terms of the treaty. The Sultan of La-Hadge was in receipt of a few hundred rupees per month for seeing that the supplies were duly sent in, but owing to some tribal disputes, the convoys were intercepted, with the result as shown above. So on the 18th March, 1858, a force consisting of 100 "Die Hards," with your humble servant among them, 50 blue jackets, 50 sappers (native), some native artillery, and about 400 of the 18th R.I.

We formed up at the gate leading out to the mainland, and two spies on swift camels were sent ahead to ascertain the whereabouts of the Arabs, who it was known were going to contest our advance. We moved off, and the sun was soon seen rising. The march was a heavy one; loose sand, and now and then wading through water, then into loose hot sand again, with the result that the stability of our boots (those locally made) were put to the test. After being in water they were like wet brown paper.

We were singing away, as a matter of course. One grand old warrior, Edward Kelly, who was a capital hand at singing good choruses and marching songs, was with us.

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Brigadier, now General Sir Coughlan, K.C.B., in command; Captain Sam. Thacker, Brigade Major in Aden, accompaning him, as did also Mr Rassam, the interpreter. Our officers were Captain W. E. Brown, in command; Lieutenants Sir Robt. Douglas, Bt., T. H. Traggett, and Powell.

Lieut. Traggett, E. Kelly, M. Ryan, and B. McCarthy met their doom in this colony on 4th May, 1863, and poor old Stephen Moloney, whose murder in New Plymouth caused so much excitement recently, was among the party with a few others who came to an end out here.

After some miles of march we could see the spies some distance ahead, and they did not appear to be moving. After events showed that they were watching the enemy, some three thousand strong. They were soon seen to be moving towards us. The Brigadier and other mounted officers were out in front of the advance guard, and as soon as the spies came up to them we were all halted, and the spies began explaining matters and pointing round, indicating where the enemy were.

Before long the Brigadier turned in his saddle and called out, "Throw the advance guard out in skirmishing order."

We were at a loss to account for this, for though we could see for miles we could discern not the slightest sign of an enemy. There were, it is true, any amount of scrub and little sand mounds all over the plain, and ample covering for men on foot, but we expected our friends to be all mounted, and this proved to be correct, a fact we were very forcibly convinced of before even our advance guard was properly extended.

About 1200 yards ahead there arose a yell which almost shook the ground, and as if by magic there appeared the force, all mounted either on camels or horses, the latter consisting of those beauties for which Arabia is so noted. Animals, men, and all must have been lying down waiting our approach, and they opened the ball.

Like the late Prince Imperial at Spicheren, this was my baptismal firing, for although I had been in the Crimea, after the fall of Sebastopol, I had not been under fire, though I had gazed on the sad ravages of war and the millions worth of destruction, saw miles of road mettled with broken shot and shell, and helped to construct walls round the numerous graveyards, and in some cases to put more covering over the remains of the poor fellows who had met their doom, covering which time and circumstances did not admit of being done when they were placed there.

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As they opened fire, the two field guns were brought from the centre of the column, where they had been concealed during the march. The extended line in front was ordered to lie down, to enable a few rounds of grapeshot to be sent over among them. The first round was very near causing considerable mischief among the line in front; through some reckless elevation it was sent ploughing up the sand among the skirmishers, and the officer who was responsible for this got somewhat scared. The next round was more successful. That, and our rifles, created a little move among them. The bright weapons of the Arabs were flashing in the sun. The whole of our men were soon extended and peppering away at them They dared not come nearer, thus the guns and us had all the sport, as the other part of the force had still the old "Brown Bess," or some very near relative to that much abused old weapon. Many people seem to forget altogether what solid work had been done by them in the past. When the Arabs found it was not to their interest to get any nearer to the white coats (we were thus dressed), they made an attempt to get round our right flank, and, as was supposed, make for Aden, under the impression that they could easily get in in our absence. Seeing the attempt, the commander sent off his body guard (15 Scinde horsemen). They went full gallop, and near enough to open fire. This bold rush out caused the Arabs to reconsider their decision, and they swept away round to the left flank, taking every care to describe a big circle, in order to avoid the little messengers we were sending after them.

By this time a long line of Sepoy skirmishers were thrown out to our left. The Arabs found that they could get much nearer to them, and did so. Then a few white coats wore sent to mix with them. This caused them to edge off, and they made an attempt to get round to the left, and this brought them not far from the Harbour Steamer Point, and a gunboat commenced to fire away with blank, which made the Arabs again change their minds. Finding that they were not likely to gain much advantage by fooling round near us, they struck a bee-line for their home, or in the direction of a town we could see a few miles ahead, Shakothman, and we had nothing more to do but follow straight on.

The blue jackets began to grumble about taking no active part. They said, "The 'Die Hards' with their d—d long rangers have it all to themselves, and will get all the credit for this."

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"Never mind," said the brigadier, "you shall storm the town."

The right of our line was somewhat overlapping the town, as we got nearly up to it, and Sir R. Douglas, who bad charge of that part, said:—

"Now, the moment the sailors get the order to charge, you cut for that big building as if Old Scratch were behind you, if we can only get half a dozen men there before the tars I'm satisfied."

A halt was ordered about 600 yards from the nearest building, and a few shot and shell sent in, but there appeared to be very few people left, having nearly all retired before we got there.

Soon the tars were ordered to charge, and away they went; half a dozen or so with Sir Robert kept edging in the direction of the big house, and when the tars rushed we rushed, and to their disgust a few of us got in before them—right into the front entrance of the large building, which proved to be a mosque—Sir Robert in the lead. In the centre was their place of prayer, and here we found a few, and three wounded men that they could not manage to take away; and no doubt the Arabs were cute enough to know that we were not likely to injure them further.

Outlying pickets were sent out in order to allow the remainder of the force to take it easy. The native sappers were set to work to undermine and blow up a building or two, just, it was supposed, to bring the Arabs to their senses as soon as possible; the remainder piled arms, and were enabled to fossack around a bit.

I ought to have mentioned that soon after the firing commenced the Brigadier said:—

"Half a dozen of you men have a pop at that chief." This was the leader, who could be seen galloping about urging on his men, brandishing his sword, which could easily be seen glittering in the sun. So about half a dozen went down on the knee and fired. The chief was seen to fall.

"Well done," said the Brigadier, and he gave ten rupees to Wm. McIntyre (now in Greymouth), and credited him with popping off the chief; but to this day I never could understand how he arrived at that conclusion, seeing that we fired simultaneously, or nearly so. However, in the town I came upon a small box of Mexican dollars, one of which is still in the family as a brooch; perhaps that accounts for page 24 keeping it so long. I think it does. I have also a few other articles which came from the Shakothman.

When the rush was first made two or three of our men came running out of the mosque with flags, on which were several small bells jingling. These, Mr Rassam said, were connected with their place of worship, and not flags of war, and they were at once replaced.

Word was passed along that a flag of truce was coming in, and three mounted men could be seen approaching with it, but just as they arrived within about four hundred yards from where we were all idling about, a mine exploded with a loud report, then another; this caused the party with the truce to turn round and flee for their lives. After some time they were seen coming again, and Mr Rassam went out to meet them.

They asked why the big guns had been fired at them; but they were informed what it really was, and on they came to within about one hundred yards of where we were all standing waiting for their approach, when they declined to go on unless we were sent away. Then Mr. Rassam said, "Move back, men, clear from the mosque; they do not like to pass you."

This we did, and they passed in, when a conference was held, and they came out, mounted other horses, and off they went. We shortly learned that all was squared, and the we were to return that afternoon.

The chiefs stated that they had lost 73 men and 3 chiefs. Besides a number of horses and camels, three men fell into our hands, and were taken into our hospital. One died from a shot in the chest. Another had his arm above the elbow shattered with a grapeshot, and it was taken off by Dr. Griffin. I think he died in our hospital. The third was a huge Seedie shot in the leg, and as soon as he got well enough to leave, he did so one dark night, for some natives had told him that as soon as he was well enough he was to be shot. He must have thought there was some truth in it, for he cleared. I was somewhat doubtful of the number killed; but as the chiefs said so it ought to be true. In such a case they were less liable to exaggeration than we should be.

About three in the afternoon we made a start for Aden, and from the Arab gate up to our lines, a distance of four or five miles, the road was lined with the inhabitants, cheering us heartily as we passed. This affair ended very satisfactorily, if we might judge from the compliments bestowed on us in page 25 despatches. There was a very marked change for the better towards us after this skirmish. Previously, when passing through the crowded bazaars it was extremely difficult to get along. All the people used to appear to do there utmost to impede our progress. It was unpleasant to be always treading on their bare toes; yet it could not be avoided sometimes if any progress was to be made at all. But after the brush, no matter how crowded the streets were, there was always a passage made for a European soldier.

John Long had cause to rejoice at this expedition, though he was only present in the spirit—his body was in gaol. The Brigadier was so delighted that he remitted the remainder of his sentence a few days after our return.