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With the Cameliers in Palestine

Chapter I — On Outpost In The Wadi El Arish

page 21

Chapter I
On Outpost In The Wadi El Arish

The evening meal is over in the camp of the Sixteenth N.Z. Company of the Fourth Battalion of the I.C.C., which is situated some fifteen miles from the mouth of the Wadi El Arish, on the eastern border of the Sinai Peninsula—this Wadi is marked on all Biblical maps of this country as the River of Egypt, which appears a misnomer, as it is at least a hundred miles from what is popularly looked on as the eastern border of Egypt—the Suez Canal, and water is very seldom seen in it.

The sun has set, and the shadows of evening are falling along the dry bed of the Wadi and on the low undulating country on each side of it, giving a softer appearance to the scattered stunted scrub which, in the bright light of the April sun, stands out sharply from the white sand on which it grows, the short dark shadows of the scrub, interspersed with the sunlit spaces between, giving a draught-board appearance to the landscape which is toned down as the shadows lengthen.

Four men have orders to report to the orderly tent for outpost duty. They are instructed by the sergeant-major to proceed up the Wadi for eight miles along the old track used by the Arabs and their predecessors for countless generations, and there take up a position so as to command all approaches towards the camp from the south. They are once more impressed with the instructions, which have already appeared in routine orders, that all mounted bodies approaching from the interior of the country in the direction of the camp are to be looked on as enemies. Reports have been received by the O.C. that a large force of Turkish cavalry, said to be two thousand strong, is concentrating in the low hilly country to the south-east, for the purpose of page 22working in behind the British army and cutting its lines of communication with its base on the canal.

The four Cameliers equip themselves for their night duty, and, in spite of the protesting groans of the "hoostas," mount and ride off into the deepening twilight, with the facetious remarks in their ears from the sentry as to the possibilities of their landing in Constantinople before long, or of being employed as batmen to a Turkish corporal in the near future.

Three miles out another outpost is passed, and the four ride on, with the peculiar swinging strides of the camels making little sound in the silence of the desert. The leader selects a suitable spot where a small wadi enters at right angles to the main one, a line of low cliffs on its farther side preventing any approach from that direction, while away on the right across the main wadi, stretch miles and miles of low undulating sandhills, all well under observation from the post selected. The Wadi is from a quarter to half a mile wide, its surface consisting partly of gravel, and partly of dry clay and sand washed down in the rainy seasons, but now as dry as—well, nothing can be drier than the Wadi El Arish in the month of April.

The camels are "barracked" in a low hollow, and the men draw lots for the order of duties. This done, number one takes up his post in a commanding position, while the other three wrap themselves in their overcoats, with their loaded rifles beside them, and on the dry ground soon drop off to sleep. At the end of two hours the sentry on duty wakes up number two, then settles down for the remainder of the night—as he hopes. It is a still, cloudy night, with sufficient broken clouds to obscure the light of the stars. Number two stands leaning against the low bank of the tributary wadi, his gaze bent along the track in the darkness, while his thoughts try to figure out his relationship to the rest of the military page 23world of which he is only a unit. He is, as it were, a nerve point thrust out to feel the slightest touch to the parent body, his duty is to transmit this knowledge instantly and accurately along the nerve or line of communication to the supporting outpost, which in turn passes it back to the company, to be transmitted by the latter to the battalion, thence to the brigade, which then forwards it to Divisional Headquarters, and so to Corps Commander, and finally to the General Officer commanding the whole army. What a responsibility, he moralises, rests on the nerve point! If it fails to receive the impression or fails to transmit it along the nerve line, why, the two thousand Turkish cavalry will sweep down on the sleeping company, then possibly wipe out the battalion, the whole brigade will be endangered, the army may have to fall back, and the whole military position, so laboriously built up, will fall like a set of dominoes standing on end.

On April 23, 1916, at Katia and Oghratina in the Sinai Peninsula, the nerve point had not functioned properly, with the result that three squadrons of Yeomanry were wiped out, and the Anzac Division had to be hurried across the canal to save the situation, as the safety of the canal was imperilled.

And so the lonely sentry in the Wadi becomes impressed with the importance of his position. Hush! What was that sound? Only a night bird out in the waste on the right. Its cry reminds him of the cry of the weka in his native New Zealand—but there are no wekas in the Sinai desert. Might it not be the signal of an enemy? He listens intently, but there is no reply to the call. But what was that? Something like the murmur of a human voice away in the distance ahead, and surely that was the sound of a hoof striking a stone, and then another voice-like sound. He stirs up his mates, directing one to go down into the bed of the page 24main Wadi, where he will have a clear getaway if necessary to warn the next outpost; the other two are placed where they will best cover the ground in front and on flank, while the leader takes a position where the age-old track crosses the bed of the side wadi. Sure enough muffled voices ahead are heard, and then the steps of animals. Nothing can be seen as yet, but on they come. Are they the advanced guard of a larger force? The leader waits till the party is within hail. "Istanna, andak, aulad!"1 he calls, opening and closing the breach of his rifle to let them know that he is armed and ready. A reply comes back in a quavering voice in a foreign tongue, which certainly does not give the impression of a military owner. "Ta'ala hene, ista'gil!"2 he orders. (He has been in the country only two months, and is already proud of his knowledge (?) of Arabic.) Again a tremulous voice replies, and now he thunders out, "Ta'ala hene, higgury! higgury!"3 while he covers with his rifle the spot where the intruders appear to be. Presently a dark shape looms forward in the darkness, then another, and two camels, loaded with bundles of stunted stalks of barley, and led by two trembling Bedouins, approach, and the latter immediately begin to palaver in their own tongue, but the sight of a fixed bayonet on a loaded rifle pointed at them, reduces them to silence. They are escorted to a hollow spot, their camels are "barracked," the loads and the Bedouins themselves carefully examined to see that nothing contraband is concealed upon them, and the two mumbling wretches are made to crouch on the ground beside their animals for the remainder of the night under the watchful eye of a New Zealander, who, deprived of his night’s sleep, expresses his opinion New Zealandly on all Bedouins of doubtful parentage, who wander about at page break
Machine-gun Company

Machine-gun Company

Camel Company Advancing

Camel Company Advancing

page break
Sikh Tug-of-War Team

Sikh Tug-of-War Team

Camel Cacolet for carrying wounded

Camel Cacolet for carrying wounded

page 25night to harvest their barley crops (by pulling up the short straws by the roots), and pack it home on camels, some twenty miles away, to thresh it with a stick in safety and at their leisure.

The "nerve point" has functioned accurately, but decides that the "impression" is not of sufficient importance to trouble a "nerve line" to transmit it to the "brain," and so the slumbers of the G.O.C. at Headquarters are not disturbed. The visions of the two thousand Turkish cavalry vanish into thin air as the rays of the sun peep over the eastern horizon, showing nothing but a lonely featureless landscape, and the members of the outpost wend their way back to camp with their night’s captures.

1 "Wait, halt, boys!"

2 and

3 "Come here! hurry!"