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With the Cameliers in Palestine

Chapter V — The Land

page 50

Chapter V
The Land

The northern portion of the Sinai Peninsula for a hundred miles east of the Suez Canal, and for an average breadth of thirty miles south from the Mediterranean Sea, consists of pure and unadulterated sand, rolling ridges in endless succession like the waves of the sea in multitude. Kinglake in the description of his journey across Sinai says: "As long as you are journeying in the interior of the desert you have no particular point to make for as your resting-place. The endless sands yield nothing but small, stunted shrubs; even these fail after the first two or three days, and from that time you pass over broad plains, you pass over newly-reared hills, you pass through valleys dug out by last week’s storm, and the hills and the valleys are sand, sand, still sand, and only sand and sand and sand again."

An Australian trooper who climbed to the top of a sand-ridge near his halting-place to get a view of the surrounding country, when asked what he saw, replied, "Miles and miles and miles of damn-all."

The Sixteenth N.Z. Company I.C.C. spent the months of April and May, 1917 in the Sinai Desert, and these same months of 1918 in the Jordan Valley, some hundred miles farther north, and were able to note the contrast between the climates of these two districts. In the Sinai the sun beats down day after day from a cloudless sky, and the heat is radiated back from the white sand which grows intensely hot on the surface, but the heat in this arid area is not so trying as the humid heat in the Jordan Valley. At night in the latter place, the temperature did not drop to any great extent, and one would awake in the middle of the night, bathed in perspiration, whereas in Sinai the radiation of heat page 51at night from the dry loose sand was so rapid that the temperature fell quickly, and when sleeping on the sand one would be awakened by the cold in the small hours of the morning. In a well-known song a lover vowed that his love would endure "till the sands of the desert grow cold." He evidently did not realize that he was informing his lady-love that he would cease to love her about 2 a.m. every day.

The greatest trouble caused by the heat in this dry area was the intense thirst created. The sources of water supply away from the newly built railway line were wells, which were few and far between, and the water obtained from these was more or less brackish, and sometimes worse. As the army advanced across the desert in 1916, a railway line from the Canal was constructed behind it, and a pipe line was laid down, through which was pumped water from the fresh-water canal from the River Nile. This canal flowed close to our camp near Ismailia, but the water there was of such a doubtful nature that it was made a crime to be caught drinking it or even washing or bathing in it. Yet this water, siphoned under the Canal at Kantara, was put through large filtering tanks and passed on in pipes from pumping station to pumping station, until in 1917 it reached nearly to the Wadi Ghuzzi south of Gaza in the south of Palestine, a distance of well over a hundred miles from the Canal.

This was the first time that the water difficulty in the passage of the Sinai Desert had been successfully overcome by mechanical means, but the idea is not quite a modern one, since Herodotus, who lived about four and a half centuries before the birth of Christ, tells how Cambyses, King of Persia, when contemplating an invasion of Egypt, made a treaty with a king of the Arabs. He states that "When, therefore, the Arabian had pledged his faith to the messengers of Cambyses, page 52he straightway contrived as follows: He filled a number of camels’ skins with water, and loading therewith all the live camels that he possessed, drove them into the desert, and awaited the coming of the army. This is the more likely of the two tales that are told. The other is an improbable story, but as it is related I think that I ought not to pass it by. There is a great river in Arabia, called the Corys, which empties itself into the Erythrean Sea. The Arab king, they say, made a pipe of the skins of oxen and other beasts, reaching from this river all the way to the desert, and so brought the water to certain cisterns which he had had dug in the desert to receive it. It is a twelve days’ journey from the river to this desert tract. And the water they say, was brought through three different pipes to three separate places."

Heredotus must have heard these two stories not very long after the incidents were supposed to have happened, as he says that he saw and examined the bones of the slain on the field of the battle in which Cambyses defeated the Egyptians near Pelusium, after his crossing the desert. It seems strange that some two thousand four hundred years afterwards, camels and water-pipes should be successfully used to supply water from Egypt to an invading army marching in the opposite direction to that in which the Persians were going.

The pipes laid by the British during their advance were placed underground, free from the heating power of the sun, and the water was clear and cool, but in the opinion of the men in the ranks, the taste was spoilt by being chlorinated by the medical experts, and many were the maledictions called down on the heads of the latter, when the billy was boiled. But in this war the medical profession took no risks, and their actions were well justified by the remarkable results obtained. After the page 53Armistice a New Zealand medical officer—a Boer War veteran, in charge of the New Zealand Detail Camp, who had to examine every man who passed through it, told the writer that he had found only two cases who had contracted enteric fever during the Sinai-Palestine campaign, and these two men had gone beyond the regulation time between inoculations. When it is remembered that in the Boer War more men were said to have died from enteric fever than were killed by enemy bullets, and when the natural water supply in Sinai and Palestine is taken into consideration, wells, some dug in the time of Abraham, and never since cleaned out, the results are truly remarkable.

Officers and other ranks tried to obtain other ingredients to discourage the microbes, and to take the sting out of the local water, or perhaps to put another sting into it. It is said that during the advance across the desert, the supply of liquor in the officers’ mess in one New Zealand regiment had run out, and the mess secretary was authorized to send a telegram to an officer who was on leave in Cairo, instructing him to bring back a case of whisky when he was returning the following day.

The secretary came back almost immediately from the signallers’ department and reported to the mess that the message could not be accepted for transmission over the military wires as it was not on military business. Another officer at once said he would get it despatched, and the secretary made a bet of a hundred piastres with him that he could not. He went off and returned in five minutes saying the message had gone. Asked how he had managed it the officer said he had made it a military order: "Captain A.B., N.Z.M.R., Shepheard’s Hotel, Cairo. Please instruct Reg. No. 1820 Sergt. J. Walker and eleven companions to report here with you tomorrow. Signed, Cd. Capt." and on the morrow page 54twelve bottles of Johnny Walker arrived at the N.Z. mess—still going strong. Difficulties are made to be overcome, and colonials frequently seem to have the faculty of overcoming them.

Perhaps the greatest heat we felt in 1917 was on April 25, when the 16th Company was camped at Lahfan, fifteen miles from El Arish. That day the camels were sent to be watered at some wells five miles away, but when they arrived there it was found that the pumping apparatus had broken down, so there was nothing else to do but go on another ten miles to El Arish. The sky was covered with a peculiar haze through which the sun blazed down in a cruel manner, so that by the time the latter place was reached the animals were showing signs of distress. Fresh water had been discovered by the Engineers just a few feet below the sand on the sea-beach, and canvas watering troughs had been set up so near to the sea from them that one could throw a stone into the Mediterranean Sea, if one could find the stone. The heat rose off the dry sand on the beach as if coming from a furnace, and it was extremely painful to walk barefooted. Just as the camels reached the troughs one collapsed and died in a few minutes. After the animals were watered they were barracked down for an hour, as it would have been dangerous to travel them on such a day immediately after they had laid in their several days’ supply of water. During this hour all hands plunged into the sea and had a bathe that still lingers in one’s memory. On the return journey we passed several well-nourished camels lying dead by the wayside, and found on arrival at our camp that some of the pack-camels left behind in our own lines had also passed out. It was said that between seventy and eighty camels in the El Arish area died that day as a result of the extreme heat, yet none of our men on duty seemed any the worse for their experience; page 55some of us had to take our turn on outpost duty that same night as usual. To have to travel fifteen miles for a drink of water, and to return fifteen miles afterward in a broiling heat that would kill camels, gives a different idea of the value of water from that generally held in more temperate countries.

After the Wadi El Arish is crossed on the eastern side of the Sinai desert the country gradually changes into flat or slightly undulating sandy loam, stretching inland and fringed with sandhills along the coast. This flat coastal plain, the land of the Philistines of old, runs back from the sea till it merges into the low foothills which in turn rise into the range of the Judaean Mountains, some two thousand feet in average height. The plain continues north gradually narrowing in width as the mountains draw nearer to the sea, until they end in a high hill, Mt. Carmel, abutting on to the coast at the town of Haifa. This coastal plain is the most fertile portion of Palestine, and even under the crude methods of Bedouin cultivation, crops of wheat and barley were produced, sometimes with quite a good yield, but under more intensive cultivation with modern implements, the Zionist Jews of the various scattered villages had vineyards and orange groves that produced splendid yields of fruit, the quality of which, after our long sojourn in the wilderness, we unanimously declared to be the finest in the world.

East of the coastal plain lies the limestone plateau of Judaea, over two thousand feet in height, on which Jerusalem and Bethlehem are situated. The eastern side of this tableland drops rapidly into the great trough occupied by the basin of the Jordan River and the Dead Sea, the latter being one thousand two hundred and ninety-two feet below sea-level.

East of this great depression, the land rises very rapidly into the tableland of Gilead and Moab, now page 56forming part of Transjordania. Here the soil is fertile and well suited for wheat growing. This district was once one of the sources of the supplies of grain for the Roman Empire, and in the town of Amman are still to be seen remains of Roman occupation in the Citadel and the amphitheatre which was capable of seating four or five thousand spectators.

In the country of Syria to the north of Palestine the mountains lie nearer to the sea, the highest peak, Mt. Hermon, over 9,000 feet high, carrying snow well into summer. The Jordan River has its sources on the slopes of this and neighbouring mountains, and is thus a snow fed river whose volume of water is well maintained all the year round.

In the Sinai Desert there is no town or village till El Arish is reached. Only few small scattered parties of Bedouins are to be found in some of the palm hods. In Southern Palestine there are very few towns, and villages are few and far between. Farther north the country lying near Jaffa is more thickly populated, as here are many thriving Zionist colonies. The hilly country of Syria contains a larger native population, the towns being on the coast, or in the inland plain between the Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon Mountains.

These lands must have been very densely populated in the earliest historical times. The Book of Numbers and also Josephus state that the Israelites at Mt. Sinai were able to provide "six hundred thousand that were able to go to war from twenty to fifty years of age," a force almost equal to the combined armies of Britain and Turkey in the late war in Palestine. In the time of Jehoshaphat, as recorded in the Second Book of Chronicles, the small kingdom of Judah alone had an effective army of one million one hundred and sixty thousand men. In those early Biblical times, and up to the time of the Roman Empire, the loss to the population page 57by war and massacre must have been unequalled in the experience of any other nation in the world.

As a contrast, during the Great War, the Turkish prisoners were well treated in concentration camps, and well washed, well clothed, well sheltered, and well fed. The inhabitants of the towns and villages, who were usually non-combatants, had implicit faith in the British forces, and immediately such places as Beersheba, Gaza, and Jaffa were captured by us, the civil population who had left these towns during the attacks on them, began to return openly past our camps, carrying with them their household goods, and driving their flocks of sheep and goats back to the grazing grounds near their old homes. Perhaps an odd sheep might be lost on the way past, but sheep are inclined to stray, being sheep until they are killed, when they become mutton, and even those stray Eastern sheep made quite good mutton, and provided a change of menu from Fray Bentos and bully beef, but such occasions were rare, and usually compen-stion was given for the "accident."

Arabic was the language of most of the population of Palestine and Syria, while the officials of the government spoke Turkish. No encouragement was given to our troops to learn either language, and parties would sometimes be sent off on reconnaissances into enemy territory without any one being able to communicate with either Bedouins or Turks. When we were blowing up a portion of the Hedjaz railway south of Amman, a large party of Arabs came to interview the Colonel of the Battalion. He asked the troopers standing near if any of them could speak Arabic, but there was no response, when a tall Arab stepped forward, and asked in perfect English, "Can I be of any assistance, sir?" It was a doubtful policy in time of war, to depend for an interpreter on those on the other side of the argument when you did not know how their sympathies lay.

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