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With the Cameliers in Palestine

Chapter XX — Cameliers At Play

page 195

Chapter XX
Cameliers At Play

But war in the East was not always a serious matter, and the Cameliers seized whatever opportunities they could to indulge their sporting propensities. When in reserve in the wilderness the men in the ranks of the I.C.C. had to make their own amusements for their leisure time.

On the evening of the day on which the 16th New Zealand Company arrived at the Training Depot at Abbassia, its introduction to the 15th N.Z. Company took the form of a contest to decide which should have the honour of representing New Zealand in a tug-of-war at a garrison sports meeting which was to be held in Cairo a few days afterwards. The 16th Company won, and later on justified its selection by winning, without a single defeat, the competition at the sports meeting in which eighty-four teams competed.

Boxing contests were frequently held, and in Rugby football the New Zealanders, both in the Camel Brigade and in the Mounted Rifle Brigade, made quite a reputation for themselves.

Sports meetings were occasionally organized, and there was always keen competition between the various battalions represented. Trotting races and scurries for camels produced some "dark horses." Bookmakers freely followed their profession at these gatherings, but did not amass fortunes, as the financial standing of most Cameliers did not allow heavy plunging.

Wrestling bareback on camels produced some unex-pected results, as those taking part never knew what their mounts would do. A camel never got excited, but in the middle of a contest would calmly begin to stalk off on its own, carrying its protesting rider with it, or page 196would walk away from under its owner while the latter was held in the grip of his opponent, as he vainly attempted to stop the camel by holding on to its bare hump, which was about as effective as trying to stop a liner from leaving a wharf by holding on to it with one’s hands.

A competition in "musical chairs" was mostly a matter of luck, as if there was not a "chair" (a bag of sand) at the spot where a camel was when the music stopped, it was almost impossible to pull him along to where there was one. Camels object to being hurried unless the persuasion is applied from behind.

An egg and spoon race on camels was certainly an innovation in sports in the wilderness, and created quite as much interest for the spectators as the more serious events. To see the big hefty Sikh, Rur Singh, with solemn face, concentrating on balancing an egg in a spoon at arm’s length, while urging his big Bikanir camel to increase its pace, and at the same time to keep on its course, was a sight never seen before on a sports ground. The camel was the only one on the ground that did not laugh at the result.

The big brawny Sikhs of the Hong Kong and Singapore Battery, our Bing Boys, were good sports, and held their own in such events as running and jumping, but a hop-step-and-jump contest was too complicated for them, as the tremendous initial hop they made always gave them such an impetus that they could not control the succeeding step, and so were always disqualified, but they laughed with the rest of us at their failures, and made up for it by defeating the 16th Company at a straight-out tug-of-war, the only team in the Brigade that did so. Their gun-mounting competitions were very interesting, and their handling of the guns from the time they took the parts from the backs of the camels until they had them mounted for action excited the admiration of all.

page 197

Usually the sports day ended up with a concert. A concert party would be provided by some of the Home divisions, and sometimes first-class talent, both male and "female," was procured. There was no door charge, the stage was made of sand-bags and sand, all seats were free and on the same level, on the ground, except for a few chairs or boxes in the "orchestral stalls" for the Heads and their guests, perhaps the back seats in the "pit" were occupied by mounted men from neighbouring units, who with the darkness of night as a background, sat on horseback, while overhead the stars in the sky looked down serenely on the "stars" on the stage. Sometimes a prima donna was introduced, whose coquettish manner and falsetto voice always scored a success, or perhaps a female (?) of uncertain years, and garments of a Victorian age, who would protest that although she might be a "has-been" she objected to be called a "Was-ir."

At ordinary times less strenuous amusements were indulged in in the evenings. The members of the British Companies patronized the game of "Housey," which was evidently considered a legal one according to King’s Regulations. It was amusing to hear the man who ran the "House," calling out the numbers as he drew them out of a bag. "Legs eleven" (11), "Kelly’s eye" (1), "Two little dooks" (22), "Blind fohty" (40), "Clickety click"(66), "Top o’ the ’ouse"(90), etc.

The tastes of the Australians and New Zealanders ran more to "Two up" and "Crown and Anchor," but these games were not allowed to be carried on within the lines, so in the dusk, the "schools" assembled out in the sandy wastes where the faint light of their few candles could not be seen from the camp. Especially after a pay day, the "schools" would boom at night, when various schemes were adopted by the rival "ring-masters" to attract custom. Some would have free page 198biscuits and lemonade distributed amongst their patron at intervals during the evening; others would have a free issue of cigarettes and chewing gum, while their exhortations to the motley crew who were in various states of dress and undress, and composed of men from the four corners of the earth, urged their patrons to stake their piastres on their fancy in a manner that would have turned an American sideshowman green with envy—"Shower it in thick and heavy," they urged, "You pick ’em and I’ll pay ’em," "I’ll hide ’em and you find ’em," "Throw it in my lucky lads, they come here in wheelbarrows and go away in motor cars." "Speculate and accumulate," "Pour it in, lads. We are the Good Samaritans you read about." "Here’s where you get the oscar for your next trip to Cairo."

Egyptian or Sudanese labourers were sometimes employed to carry out the drudgery work of the camps behind the lines. Once a newly arrived Egyptian asked an older hand why the men went out amongst the sand-hills at dusk every night. The other replied, "The New Zealanders are very religious men. Their priests lead them out to a quiet spot where they can pray. The priest spreads out a holy mat with marks on it which means something they have great faith in. He kneels down beside the mat, then a row of worshippers kneel all round him, with another row bending over them, and another row standing behind them. The worshippers throw their offerings on to the holy mat, and the priest places two coins on a short piece of polished wood which he calls a Kip, and raising his eyes to the sky, he throws up the coins as an offering to Allah. All the worshippers raise their eyes also to the sky, and then bow solemnly over the mat, and say together, ‘God Almighty,'and the priest answers, ‘A pair of Micks,’ which means that the offerings are not accepted, or he may say, ‘Oh Lord, he has done ’em again,’ and the joyful cries of some page 199of the worshippers show that Allah is pleased, and so they, too, are glad."

On September 30, 1918, when the Australian and New Zealand ex-Cameliers blocked the road and railway to the Barada Gorge forming the exit from Damascus to the north, they intercepted a train carrying away large supplies of Turkish money both in gold coins and in paper notes. A quantity of the gold was commandeered before the rest was put securely under a guard, but the paper money was made common property. Men stuffed their pockets and saddle-bags with notes of all denominations, and pictured to themselves the pleasure awaiting them when they got leave to Damascus. But the first party to visit the town found that the notes were of no more value than blank pieces of paper, as the trades-people would not accept them at all. Some use had to be made of the deflated money, so the "wealthy" soldiers broke into an orgy of card-playing for high stakes. The sky was the limit on a single throw at two-up or a hand at poker. One player would casually bet a hundred pounds on three aces, and the next player would calmly say, "Your hundred, and up another hundred," and the stakes would ultimately stagger even the Jubilee Plunger had he been present. Thousands of pounds would change hands at a sitting. The troopers would rise from a game, after having lost or won the price of a farm or sheep station, as serenely as if they were multi-millionaires, and no one was any the worse or the better for it. A hundred piastre note twisted into a squill would be used as a pipe lighter by a winner, and a loser would remark plaintively, "Well, that’s the last of my ten thousand."