With the Cameliers in Palestine
Chapter XVI — Recuperation
By the beginning of December 11 the Companies of the I.C. Brigade had fallen considerably below strength. Their casualties had been heavy, and the men in the ranks suffered considerably from septic sores, which broke out whenever a slight injury was received on the skin. Under the strenuous conditions of the campaign proper treatment could not be received; the water supply was insufficient for ordinary health purposes, and was frequently of an impure nature. Infection seemed to affect even the slightest scratch, and often the sores increased in extent to such a degree that the men had to be sent back to hospital for medical treatment. In addition an epidemic of skin disease broke out, and affected most troopers; in one section only one man kept free from the infection. Sometimes the points of irritation turned septic, and men were seen with the whole of both of their arms bandaged on this account.
The camels also were in low condition owing to the strenuous times they had passed through, and most of them developed mange badly, a disease which, if not taken in hand in time, will render the animals useless for service. The weather had become cold and wet, and camels do not stand these conditions as well as horses. The Camel Brigade was therefore ordered back to the dry sandy country at Rafa for medical treatment for men and animals.
The journey south was a most uncomfortable one. Heavy rain began to fall before the Brigade left Yebna and continued to fall on the following days. The whole of the coastal plain became water-logged, the camels, already in a weak condition, sank well over their fet-locks in the soft ground, frequently bogged altogether, and simply lay down and refused to exert themselves page 148further. When a camel gets into this condition it is usually a hopeless task to get it on its legs again. The best thing to do then is to remove its load and shoot the animal to put it out of its misery. One reason for destroying such deserted camels was that they all bore a military brand, and if they fell into the hands of Bedouins it would be difficult for the military authorities to decide whether such animals had been obtained honestly or not by the natives. When all discarded military camels were destroyed, possession of any such branded animal by a Bedouin was sufficient proof that the camel had been stolen.
For five days the Brigade struggled south, its route being marked by straggling Cameliers whose mounts needed careful nursing to keep them going, while every now and then the body of a camel showed that the struggle had been too much for it. At length the Wilderness of Shur was reached, and one night camp was pitched near the redoubt of Hareira, formerly one of the strongest positions in the Turkish line between Gaza and Beersheba. The place was strongly entrenched and heavily wired in, and in front the ridge sloped down gradually to a perfectly level plain stretching seven or eight miles south to the Wadi Ghuzzi. The strong entrenchments on all the ridges and also out in the plain would have made a frontal attack on the position an almost impossible task. Fortunately the outflanking movement at Beersheba and the break through at Sheria compelled the garrison at Hareira to withdraw before their line of retreat was blocked.
The Camel Brigade crossed the Wadi once more near Shellal, but found a country changed from what it had been when last they saw it before Allenby’s big drive had begun. Then there were camps and troops every-| where, but now the only signs of life were a few small guards over bridges or watering-plants.page 149
The 16th Company passed one small camp of empty tents under the care of a guard of British Infantry, and when the Company stopped for the night about a mile away one Camelier, whose bivvy shelter of an oil-sheet and a blanket had not proved rainproof on the journey south, set out after dark and returned in an hour or so with enough canvas to make a bivvy that was the envy of the section. He said the guards would not miss it, even if they counted the tents in the morning. He had crept in and cut the inside lining of a double tent without interfering with the guy-ropes, and had left the outside covering of the tent standing. With a little manipulation he was able to shape his new abode so that it bore no resemblance to a tent.
The Brigade halted near Shellal for ten days. Relief parties with led camels were sent back to help the stragglers whose animals had collapsed, and it was some days before all these strays were gathered in. The experience during this trek south showed the state that the camels had got into. An advance into enemy territory under these conditions would have been almost impossible.
While camped at Shellal the Medical Officers prescribed wholesale treatment for the ailments of the men. A supply of a suitable ointment was issued to each company, and each man had his body effectively anointed and massaged by his mate. It was a weird sight to see from the background of night, in the unsteady light of the dancing flames of the bivvy fires, the figures of the men in Nature’s garb, ivory white on the side next the fire, and black silhouettes on the other side, rubbing each other’s bodies vigorously and indulging in all kinds of pranks and antics like playful schoolboys. It must have looked like a dance of demons, but the accompanying sounds were in no ways demoniacal—there was too much merriment to make that mistake. A fresh issue of warm page 150underclothing was made, and the treatment continued for several evenings. All wearing apparel and blankets were disinfected in a steam chamber; more varied forms of food were supplied (our section got a crate of eggs in one issue, and eggs and bacon appeared on the menu for breakfast for a very short time), and the trouble was soon cured.
The Brigade then moved on to Rafa where the camels were handed over to the Veterinary staff who had a party of Egyptians to carry out the work. The bodies of the animals were treated with a dressing of a very oily nature, washed with hot water and then scraped. They were covered with rugs made of heavy sacking, and as the weather was cold they looked very miserable for some days, but with plenty of food and rest they soon began to recover their condition. Rough grazing was to be had on the sandhills, and after a fortnight’s time they were given regular exercise every morning, and gradually hardened up, until by the beginning of March the Brigade was once more ready to take the field.
At the same time means were taken to keep the men fit. Physical exercises were carried out in the early mornings; football matches were arranged in which the 16th N.Z. Company more than held its own against all comers, and occasionally sports meetings were held which consisted of contests for both men and camels.
On December 31 the Third Battalion (including the 15th N.Z. Company which had taken part in the campaign from El Arish to Hill 265) left the Brigade, and moved down to the Canal Zone where it carried out patrols and other duties until the Camel Corps was reorganized in June, 1918. The Hong Kong and Singapore Battery rejoined the Brigade at Rafa on January 5, after taking part in the strenuous hill fighting leading up to the capture of Jerusalem, and on January 16 the First page 151Battalion (Australian) rejoined the Brigade, having been relieved in the Canal Zone by the Third Battalion.
Lieut.-General, Chauvel, Commander of Desert Mounted Corps, paid a visit of inspection to the Brigade in January. He addressed all ranks, thanked them for the good work they had done, and afterwards gave an interesting summary of the chief events of the campaign from Beersheba to Jaffa. Lieut.-Colonel Mills, the newly appointed O.C. of the Fourth Battalion, took over his new command early in the year, and at once put himself onside with all ranks.
The hardening process was continued with the camels, and by the beginning of March rumours began to circulate as to what our next move was to be. That it was to be a strenuous one we knew from the insistence of the officers on the necessity of each man having his camel and equipment thoroughly fit, as we were told each man’s safety would depend on the staying powers of his mount, and this we found out later on to be quite true. All gear was thoroughly overhauled, saddles were taken to pieces, and the pads restuffed and fitted to suit the backs of the camels, while all leather work was renewed when necessary, oiled, dubbined, and polished.
Early in March the Brigade moved north again. Our Company struck all tents and bivvies, all gear was packed on the backs of camels, and all rubbish was burned, or was supposed to be, and the whole of the sandy area left so level and clean that not a scrap of paper could be seen. Our O.C. viewed the spot with approval, and seemed proud that he had such a conscientious body of men under his command. All hands were in good spirits, everyone was physically fit, the animals were in good form, and we were once more on our road to adventure.
But sometimes appearances are deceptive. After we had trekked some five or six miles, we were overtaken by an irate staff officer who asked our O.C. what the page 152something of a tropical nature he meant by leaving our camping ground in such a disgraceful state, and ordered him to send back a fatigue party at once to clean it up. The O.C. was taken aback, and tried to deny the charge, but higher authority insisted, and the order had to be obeyed. When the fatigue party arrived at our late camping area it found the whole place littered with papers, old clothing, discarded ammunition, bully-beef tins, empty bottles, etc., etc., and looking like a rubbish tip. Apparently as soon as we were out of sight, Bedouins appeared from their places of concealment in the adjoining sandhills, and proceeded to dig in the sand where the bivvies had been, and rooted up the material that the Cameliers had discarded and concealed in the easiest manner possible. Unfortunately the Brigadier and his staff arrived to inspect the site while the natives were so engaged, and our reputation for order and tidiness faded under the hot blast that followed.
The trek north through the centre of the coastal plain was of quite a different nature from our trip south. The country, refreshed by the "former rains," was covered with a thick luxuriant growth of fresh green vegetation, and in the bright sunny days looked like a real Land of Promise. (We were to have an experience of the " latter rains" before long.) Here and there flowers of various kinds grew wild, lilies, irises, cyclamens, stars of Bethlehem, and in places the ground was red with scarlet anemones, all wasting their sweetness in the desert air. For mile after mile no living beings were to be seen, and no signs of habitation or cultivation; the land was as sparsely settled as in the times of the Patriarchs.
In the evenings we would halt on a lonely hillside, and sleep under the stars, reclining amongst the herbage, which gave out a pleasant aroma of wild thyme and other aromatic plants when crushed, and from daybreak the page 153song of the skylark accompanied us in our duties. Occasional swallows were seen, the forerunners of the annual migration to the north, while now and again flocks of ibises were observed. As we moved north villages and Bedouin encampments appeared more frequently, and later on we passed through several villages of repatriated Jews. In one of these, Yasur, the first signs of modern methods of agriculture were apparent, several old drills, a horse hayrake, and an old Deering reaper and binder. These were for many of our lads of more interest at the moment than the ancient eastern implements of the Bedouins.
On March 13, when we were passing through a more thickly populated area, we had halted for breakfast, and just as we were ready to move off two regiments of the New Zealand Mounted Rifles appeared on the march to the east. Men and horses all looked very fit, and many were the greetings from old acquaintances as they passed. At the end of the column medical orderlies and others appeared, mounted on donkeys, but all in the highest spirits. Truly this was a country of contrasts. At one place two Scottish Cameliers were seen chasing a runaway camel, both expressing their opinions of the animal in both pure and impure Doric; a waggon team of five mules is driven past, its driver asking "Can you tell me where be the road to the railway siding, choom?" An Australian Light Horseman rides up to inquire his way to an Aussie Camel Company; a column of British Yeomanry soon appears, and here are New Zealanders mounted on horses, camels and donkeys, while not far off Bedouins are seen scratching the soil with their ancient wooden ploughs drawn by the proverbial ox and ass, or by a camel.
We camped at Ras Deiran for two days, and on the morning of the 17th moved off towards the Judaean Mountains just as heavy rain began to fall. The road page 154soon became running streams of water, or quagmires of mud, through which the camels struggled with difficulty. Two or three collapsed altogether, and one broke its leg in a bog-hole. We followed along the line of the old Turkish railway from Jaffa as far as Junction Station where the column was held up three hours at the crossing of a creek, the bridge over which had been destroyed during the November advance. Leaving the main road leading to Jerusalem, the Brigade turned up a wadi towards the south-east, and wound its way up a rocky road to the higher ground until midnight. Next morning we passed the large village of Zakariyah, set on a hill amidst pleasant surroundings, with olive trees growing freely in its neighbourhood, and then followed a valley half a mile wide, the soil of which was mostly cultivated, which made the going very heavy for the camels. One animal near the head of the column gave up the struggle and was destroyed. Before the middle of the Brigade passed the spot a party of Bedouins had suddenly appeared from nowhere in particular like vultures out of the sky, and had skinned the animal’s body, and were wrangling noisily over the division of the flesh. There was going to be a high feast in their encampment that day.
Leaving the valley we followed a rocky track untill we reached the top of the plateau some two thousand feet above sea-level. From here an extensive view was obtained of the Judaean Mountains running north and south, while away on the west was the coastal plain, and beyond that the Mediterranean Sea. All day the column passed on over the high country, the only signs of life being seen in the occasional wadis below, where small patches of cultivation formed a marked contrast to the desolate appearance of the rocky sides and tops of the hills around. Towards evening we passed the village of Hausan on our left, when, rising over a bare limestone page 155top, away on the north-east, we caught our first glimpse of the sacred city of Jerusalem, while Bethlehem lay due east of us. The view of these historic spots so intimately connected with the Bible and the three great religions of mankind, had at first a sobering effect on all ranks, not unmixed with which was a feeling of satisfaction that our armies had at length freed these places from the blighting influence of Turkish rule.
From the top of a bare limestone ridge we suddenly looked down on a village, El Khudr, nestling in the valley below us with a fine looking church standing out prominently amongst other stone buildings. This was the Greek church of St. George, which had a clock tower from which the hours and half-hours were chimed. When had we last seen a church or heard chimes? Spanning the road from El Khudr is a well-built stone archway surmounted by an iron figure of the Saint, and having a carving on the arch itself of the scene depicting the slaying of the dragon by St. George, formerly familiar to us on our English sovereigns.
The Brigade camped for three days on a flat piece of ground about a mile below Bethlehem. On one afternoon leave was granted to half of our Battalion to visit the town. The Church of the Nativity was naturally the centre of greatest interest. A flight of steps leads down from the main body of the church to the Chapel of the Nativity in which a silver star bearing the Latin inscription "Jesus Christus natus est hic de Virgine Maria," is inlaid in a recess to mark the supposed site of the birth of Christ. A number of lamps are kept burning constantly in this recess, under the watchful care of the attendants. While one party was being shown through this part the guide remarked of a certain lamp that it had been burning continuously for five hundred years, whereupon an Australian in the party retorted, "Well, it is time the blinking lamp had a spell," page 156and blew it out. A New Zealand Sergeant was speaking to a British Officer in the church when the ancient priest in charge of the vault approached them, and with tears streaming down his face, informed them of what had occurred. The matter was reported to the Officer in charge of the town, and the whole church was placed out of bounds for the troops during the rest of their stay in the neighbourhood. The offender was severely dealt with by the military authorities, but if such an incident had happened in a Moslem mosque, the offender would have been lucky had he escaped from the building alive. Happily there were few instances of thoughtless conduct of this nature amongst the troops.
Some three or four miles south along the road to Hebron, are three large reservoirs, called Solomon’s Pools, which once supplied Jerusalem with water. These are 120 yards, 140 yards, and 215 yards long respectively, and vary from 75 yards to 90 yards wide, their depth being from thirty to forty feet. The walls have a smooth cement surface, so hard that it cannot be scratched with the blade of a knife.
Leaving Bethlehem one evening the Brigade passed on towards Jerusalem. The column moved slowly along the Jaffa Road on the western side of the town, past the Bab el Khalil, or Jaffa Gate through which General Allenby had made his triumphal entry on foot, past the high stone walls of the old city, through a well-formed but rather narrow street in the newer part of the town outside the walls, where the Hotel Fast was lit up by electric lights, a sign of modern progress, while in the centre of the old city in the dim moonlight rose the dome of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and on the opposite side of the town in the Temple area could be seen the top of the Dome of the Rock, or Mosque of Omar.page 157
As the Brigade slowly wound its way round the northern side of the city, where there was an unobstructed view of the massive stone walls with their arched gateways, such as the Bab el Amud, or Damascus Gate, one could not help dwelling on the tragic history of Jerusalem in the past when time after time it had been captured and sacked, more than once being completely destroyed, while now in these modern times of powerful artillery and high explosives, it had fallen into the hands of the British without a shot being fired over it, or a stone in its walls being disturbed.
The column passed down and crossed the Valley of Kedron, with the Garden of Gethsemane and the Mount of Olives on our left, and slowly climbing the slope of the hills overlooking the Sacred City from the east, it travelled on past Bethany, and at daylight arrived on the hill-tops at Talat ed Dumm. This spot commands a view of the Jordan Valley and the mountain country beyond it, and is a short distance from the Good Samaritan’s Inn beside the Jerusalem-jericho Road. But what a difference in the traffic from that in the time of the Parable. On that day when the man fell among thieves, we read of only three other travellers on the road, and one of them came only by chance, whereas on this day of March, 1918, there was almost a continuous procession of motor lorries, motor cars, limbers, waggons, and columns of transport camels, travelling both ways both by day and by night.
The next day the Brigade camels were taken down to the Wadi Kelt to be watered. The track led down the side of a very steep rocky gorge, and was so narrow that two camels could not pass on it. Each man had four animals, the head of one being tied to the tail of the one in front of it, and in this way the long column wound its way for hours down the narrow track worn out of the steep sides of the gorge. At one point an page 158extra large Bikanir camel could not pass under an overhanging rock, neither could it turn to go back, so it was pushed bodily over the edge of the track to take its chances of landing alive at the bottom of the gorge.
Just where a tributary wadi joined the main one, an ancient aqueduct about eighty feet high spanned the bed of the stream. It had a wide high arched opening through which the track passed, and must have been an ambitious project when it was built. It was up this gorge of the Wadi Kelt that the Children of Israel, under their leader Joshua, passed when they invaded the hill country of Canaan after they had captured Jericho. Now the cosmopolitan Camel Brigade was retracing the tracks of the Israelites in the opposite direction. We were bound for Jericho, the Jordan River, and the Mountains of Moab.