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CHAPTERS 17 TO 27
My chiefs were astonished at such favourable news, but promised help, and meanwhile sent me back, much against my will, into Arabia. I reached Feisal’s camp on the day the Turks carried the defences of Jebel Subh. By their so doing the entire basis of my confidence in a tribal war was destroyed.
We havered for a while by Fenbo, hoping to retrieve the position: but the tribesmen proved to be useless for assault, and we saw that if the Revolt was to endure we must invent a new plan of campaign at once.
This was hazardous, as the promised British military experts had not yet arrived. However, we decided that to regain the initiative we must ignore the main body of the enemy, and concentrate far off on his railway flank. The first step towards this was to move our base to Wejh: which we proceeded to do in the grand manner.
Clayton a few days later told me to return to Arabia and Feisal. This being much against my grain I urged my complete unfitness for the job: said I hated responsibility — obviously the position of a conscientious adviser would be responsible — and that in all my We objects had been gladder to me than persons, and ideas than objects. So the duty of succeeding with men, of disposing them to any purpose, would be doubly hard to me. They were not my medium: I was not practised in that technique. I was unlike a soldier: hated soldiering. Of course, I had read the usual books (too many books), Clausewitz and Jomini, Mahan and Foch, had played at Napoleon’s campaigns, worked at Hannibal’s tactics, and the wars of Belisarius, like any other man at Oxford; but I had never thought myself into the mind of a real commander compelled to fight a campaign of his own.
Last of all I reminded Clayton, relevantly, that the Sirdar had telegraphed to London for certain regular officers competent to direct the Arab war. The reply was that they might be months arriving, and meanwhile Feisal must be linked to us, and his needs promptly notified to Egypt. So I had to go; leaving to others the Arab Bulletin I had founded, the maps I wished to draw, and the file of the war-changes of the Turkish Army, all fascinating activities in which my training helped me; to take up a role for which I felt no inclination. As our revolt succeeded, onlookers have praised its leadership: but behind the scenes lay all the vices of amateur control, experimental councils, divisions, whimsicality.
My journey was to Yenbo, now the special base of Feisal’s army, where Garland single-handed was teaching the Sherifians how to blow up railways with dynamite, and how to keep army stores in systematic order. The first activity was the better. Garland was an enquirer in physics, and had years of practical knowledge of explosives. He had his own devices for mining trains and felling telegraphs and cutting metals; and his knowledge of Arabic and freedom from the theories of the ordinary sapper-school enabled him to teach the art of demolition to unlettered Beduin in a quick and ready way. His pupils admired a man who was never at a loss.
Incidentally he taught me to be familiar with high explosive. Sappers handled it like a sacrament, but Garland would shovel a handful of detonators into his pocket, with a string of primers, fuse, and fusees, and jump gaily on his camel for a week’s ride to the Hejaz Railway. His health was poor and the climate made him regularly ill. A weak heart troubled him after any strenuous effort or crisis; but he treated these troubles as freely as he did detonators, and persisted till he had derailed the first train and broken the first culvert in Arabia. Shortly afterwards he died.
Things in Hejaz had changed a good deal in the elapsed month. Pursuing his former plan, Feisal had moved to Wadi Yenbo, and was trying to make safe his rear before going up to attack the railway in the grand manner. To relieve him of the burdensome Harb tribes, his young half-brother Zeid was on the way up from Rabegh to Wadi Safra, as a nominal subordinate of Sherif Ali. The advanced Harb clans were efficiently harrying the Turkish communications between Medina and Bir Abbas. They sent in to Feisal nearly every day a little convoy of captured camels, or rifles picked up after an engagement, or prisoners, or deserters.
Rabegh, shaken by the first appearance of Turkish aeroplanes on November the seventh, had been reassured by the arrival of a flight of four British aeroplanes, B.E. machines, under Major Ross, who spoke Arabic so adeptly and was so splendid a leader that there could be no two minds as to the wise direction of his help. More guns came in week by week, till there were twenty-three, mostly obsolete, and of fourteen patterns. Ali had about three thousand Arab infantry; of whom two thousand were regulars in khaki, under Aziz el Masri. With them were nine hundred camel corps, and three hundred Egyptian troops. French gunners were promised.
Sherif Abdulla had at last left Mecca, on November the twelfth. A fortnight later he was much where he had meant to be, south, east, and north-east of Medina, able to cut off its supplies from Kasim and Kuweit. Abdulla had about four thousand men with him, but only three machine-guns, and ten inefficient mountain guns captured at Taif and Mecca. Consequently he was not strong enough to carry out his further plan of a concerted attack on Medina with Ali and Feisal. He could only blockade it, and for this purpose posted himself at Henakiyeh, a desert place, eighty miles north-east of Medina, where he was too far away to be very useful.
The matter of the stores in the Yenbo base was being well bandied. Garland had left the checking and issuing of them to Abd el Kader, Feisal’s governor, who was systematic and quick. His efficiency was a great comfort to us, since it enabled us to keep our attention on more active things. Feisal was organizing his peasants, his slaves, and his paupers into formal battalions, an irregular imitation of the new model army of Aziz at Rabegh. Garland held bombing classes, fired guns, repaired machine-guns, wheels, and harness, and was armourer for them all. The feeling was busy and confident.
Feisal, who had not yet acted on our reminders of the importance of Wejh, was imagining an expedition of the Juheina to take it. Meanwhile he was in touch with the Billi, the numerous tribe with headquarters in Wejh, and he hoped for support from them. Their paramount Sheikh, Suleiman Rifada, was temporizing, being really hostile; for the Turks had made him Pasha and decorated him; but his cousin Hamid was in arms for the Sherif, and had just captured a gratifying little caravan of seventy camels on the way from El Ula, with stores for the Turkish garrison of Wejh. As I was starting for Kheif Hussein to press the Wejh plan again on Feisal, news came in of a Turkish repulse near Bir ibn Hassani. A reconnaissance of their cavalry and camel corps had been pushed too far into the hills, and the Arabs had caught it and scattered it. Better and better yet.
So I made a happy start with my sponsor for the journey, Sherif Abd el Kerim el Beidawi, half-brother of Mohammed, Emir of the Juheina, but, to my astonishment, of pure Abyssinian type. They told me later that his mother had been a slave-girl married by the old Emir late in life. Abd el Kerim was a man of middle height, thin and coal black, but debonaire, twenty-six years old; though he looked less, and had only a tiny tuft of beard on his sharp chin. He was restless and active, endowed with an easy, salacious humour. He hated the Turks, who had despised him for his colour (Arabs had little colour-feeling against Africans: it was the Indian who evoked their race-dislike), and was very merry and intimate with me. With him were three or four of his men, all well mounted; and we had a rapid journey, for Abd el Kerim was a famous rider who took pride in covering his stages at three times the normal speed. It was not my camel, and the weather was cool and clouded, with a taste of rain. So I had no objection.
After starting, we cantered for three unbroken hours. That had shaken down our bellies far enough for us to hold more food, and we stopped and ate bread and drank coffee till sunset, while Abd el Kerim rolled about his carpet in a dog-fight with one of the men. When he was exhausted he sat up; and they told stories and japed, till they were breathed enough to get up and dance. Everything was very free, very good-tempered, and not at all dignified.
When we re-started, an hour’s mad race in the dusk brought us to the end of the Tehama, and to the foot of a low range of rock and sand. A month ago, coming from Hamra, we had passed south of this: now we crossed it, going up Wadi Agida, a narrow, winding, sandy valley between the hills. Because it had run in flood a few days earlier, the going was firm for our panting camels; but the ascent was steep and we had to take it at walking pace. This pleased me, but so angered Abd el Kerim, that when, in a short hour, we reached the watershed he thrust his mount forward again and led us at break-neck speed down hill in the yielding night (a fair road, fortunately, with sand and pebbles underfoot) for half an hour, when the land flattened out, and we came to the outlying plantations of Nakhl Mubarak, chief date-gardens of the southern Juheina.
As we got near we saw through the palm-trees flame, and the flame-lit smoke of many fires, while the hollow ground re-echoed with the roaring of thousands of excited camels, and volleying of shots or shoutings in the darkness of lost men, who sought through the crowd to rejoin their friends. As we had heard in Yenbo that the Nakhl were deserted, this tumult meant something strange, perhaps hostile. We crept quietly past an end of the grove and along a narrow street between man-high mud walls, to a silent group of houses. Abd el Kerim forced the courtyard door of the first on our left, led the camels within, and hobbled them down by the walls that they might remain unseen. Then he slipped a cartridge into the breech of his rifle and stole off on tiptoe down the street towards the noise to find out what was happening. We waited for him, the sweat of the ride slowly drying in our clothes as we sat there in the chill night, watching.
He came back after half an hour to say that Feisal with his camel corps had just arrived, and we were to go down and join him. So we led the camels out and mounted; and rode in file down another lane on a bank between houses, with a sunk garden of palms on our right. Its end was filled with a solid crowd of Arabs and camels, mixed together in the wildest confusion, and all crying aloud. We pressed through them, and down a ramp suddenly into the bed of Wadi Yenbo, a broad, open space: how broad could only be guessed from the irregular lines of watch-fires glimmering over it to a great distance. Also it was very damp; with slime, the relic of a shallow flood two days before, yet covering its stones. Our camels found it slippery under foot and began to move timidly.
We had no opportunity to notice this, or indeed anything, just now, except the mass of Feisal’s army, filling the valley from side to side. There were hundreds of fires of thorn-wood, and round them were Arabs making coffee or eating, or sleeping muffled like dead men in their cloaks, packed together closely in the confusion of camels. So many camels in company made a mess indescribable, couched as they were or tied down all over the camping ground, with more ever coming in, and the old ones leaping up on three legs to join them, roaring with hunger and agitation. Patrols were going out, caravans being unloaded, and dozens of Egyptian mules bucking angrily over the middle of the scene.
We ploughed our way through this din, and in an island of calm at the very centre of the valley bed found Sherif Feisal. We halted our camels by his side. On his carpet, spread barely over the stones, he was sitting between Sherif Sharraf, the Kaimmakam both of the Imaret and of Taif, his cousin, and Maulud, the rugged, slashing old Mesopotamian patriot, now acting as his A.D.C. In front of him knelt a secretary taking down an order, and beyond him another reading reports aloud by the light of a silvered lamp which a slave was holding. The night was windless, the air heavy, and the unshielded flame poised there stiff and straight.
Feisal, quiet as ever, welcomed me with a smile until he could finish his dictation. After it he apologized for my disorderly reception, and waved the slaves back to give us privacy. As they retired with the onlookers, a wild camel leaped into the open space in front of us, plunging and trumpeting. Maulud dashed at its head to drag it away; but it dragged him instead; and, its load of grass ropes for camel fodder coming untied, there poured down over the taciturn Sharraf, the lamp, and myself, an avalanche of hay. ‘God be praised,’ said Feisal gravely, ‘that it was neither butter nor bags of gold.’ Then he explained to me what unexpected things had happened in the last twenty-four hours on the battle front.
The Turks had slipped round the head of the Arab barrier forces in Wadi Safra by a side road in the hills, and had cut their retreat. The Harb, in a panic, had melted into the ravines on each side, and escaped through them in parties of twos and threes, anxious for their threatened families. The Turkish mounted men poured down the empty valley and over the Dhifran Pass to Bir Said, where Ghalib Bey, their commander, nearly caught the unsuspecting Zeid asleep in his tent. However, warning came just in time. With the help of Sherif Abdulla ibn Thawab, an old Harith campaigner, Emir Zeid held up the enemy attack for long enough to get some of his tents and baggage packed on camels and driven away. Then he escaped himself; but his force melted into a loose mob of fugitives riding wildly through the night towards Yenbo.
Thereby the road to Yenbo was laid open to the Turks, and Feisal had rushed down here only an hour before our arrival, with five thousand men, to protect his base until something properly defensive could be arranged. His spy system was breaking down: the Harb, having lost their wits in the darkness, were bringing in wild and contradictory reports from one side and another about the strength of the Turks and their movements and intention. He had no idea whether they would strike at Yenbo or be content with holding the passes from Wadi Yenbo into Wadi Safra while they threw the bulk of their forces down the coast towards Rabegh and Mecca. The situation would be serious either way: the best that could happen would be if Feisal’s presence here attracted them, and caused them to lose more days trying to catch his field army while we strengthened Yenbo. Meanwhile, he was doing all he could, quite cheerfully; so I sat down and listened to the news; or to the petitions, complaints and difficulties being brought in and settled by him summarily.
Sharraf beside me worked a busy tooth-stick back and forward along his gleaming jaws, speaking only once or twice an hour, in reproof of too-urgent suitors. Maulud ever and again leaned over to me, round Feisal’s neutral body, eagerly repeating for our joint benefit any word of a report which might be turned to favour the launching of an instant and formal counter-attack.
This lasted till half-past four in the morning. It grew very cold as the damp of the valley rose through the carpet and soaked our clothes. The camp gradually stilled as the tired men and animals went one by one to sleep; a white mist collected softly over them and in it the fires became slow pillars of smoke. Immediately behind us, rising out of the bed of mist, Jebel Rudhwa, more steep and rugged than ever, was brought so close by the hushed moonlight that it seemed hanging over our heads.
Feisal at last finished the urgent work. We ate half-a-dozen dates, a frigid comfort, and curled up on the wet carpet. As I lay there in a shiver, I saw the Biasha guards creep up and spread their cloaks gently over Feisal, when they were sure that he was sleeping.
An hour later we got up stiffly in the false dawn (too cold to go on pretending and lying down) and the slaves lit a fire of palm-ribs to warm us, while Sharraf and myself searched for food and fuel enough for the moment. Messengers were still coming in from all sides with evil rumours of an immediate attack; and the camp was not far off panic. So Feisal decided to move to another position, partly because we should be washed out of this one if it rained anywhere in the hills, and partly to occupy his men’s minds and work off their restlessness.
When his drums began to beat, the camels were loaded hurriedly. After the second signal everyone leaped into the saddle and drew off to left or right, leaving a broad lane up which Feisal rode, on his mare, with Sharraf a pace behind him, and then Ali, the standard-bearer, a splendid wild man from Nejd, with his hawk’s face framed in long plaits of jet-black hair falling downward from his temples. Ali was dressed garishly, and rode a tall camel. Behind him were all the mob of sherifs and sheikhs and slaves — and myself — pell-mell. There were eight hundred in the bodyguard that morning.
Feisal rode up and down looking for a place to camp, and at last stopped on the further side of a little open valley just north of Nakhl Mubarak village; though the houses were so buried in the trees that few of them could be seen from outside. On the south bank of this valley, beneath some rocky knolls, Feisal pitched his two plain tents. Sharraf had his personal tent also; and some of the other chiefs came and lived by us. The guard put up their booths and shelters; and the Egyptian gunners halted lower down on our side, and dressed their twenty tents beautifully in line, to look very military. So in a little while we were populous, if hardly imposing in detail.
We stayed here two days, most of which I spent in Feisal’s company, and so got a deeper experience of his method of command, at an interesting season when the morale of his men was suffering heavily from the scare reports brought in, and from the defection of the Northern Harb. Feisal, fighting to make up their lost spirits, did it most surely by lending of his own to everyone within reach. He was accessible to all who stood outside his tent and waited for notice; and he never cut short petitions, even when men came in chorus with their grief in a song of many verses, and sang them around us in the dark. He listened always, and, if he did not settle the case himself, called Sharraf or Faiz to arrange it for him. This extreme patience was a further lesson to me of what native headship in Arabia meant.
His self-control seemed equally great. When Mirzuk el Tikheimi, his guest-master, came in from Zeid to explain the shameful story of their rout, Feisal just laughed at him in public and sent him aside to wait while he saw the sheikhs of the Harb and the Ageyl whose carelessness had been mainly responsible for the disaster. These he rallied gently, chaffing them for having done this or that, for having inflicted such losses, or lost so much. Then he called back Mirzuk and lowered the tent-flap: a sign that there was private business to be done. I thought of the meaning of Feisal’s name (the sword flashing downward in the stroke) and feared a scene, but he made room for Mirzuk on his carpet, and said, ‘Come! tell us more of your ‘nights’ and marvels of the battle: amuse us.’ Mirzuk, a good-looking, clever lad (a little too sharp-featured) falling into the spirit of the thing, began, in his broad, Ateibi twang, to draw for us word-pictures of young Zeid in flight; of the terror of Ibn Thawab, that famous brigand; and, ultimate disgrace, of how the venerable el Hussein, father of Sherif Ali, the Harithi, had lost his coffee-pots!
Feisal, in speaking, had a rich musical voice, and used it carefully upon his men. To them he talked in tribal dialect, but with a curious, hesitant manner, as though faltering painfully among phrases, looking inward for the just word. His thought, perhaps, moved only by a little in front of his speech, for the phrases at last chosen were usually the simplest, which gave an effect emotional and sincere. It seemed possible, so thin was the screen of words, to see the pure and the very brave spirit shining out.
At other times he was full of humour — that invariable magnet of Arab goodwill. He spoke one night to the Rifaa sheikhs when he sent them forward to occupy the plain this side of Bir el Fagir, a tangled country of acacia and tamarisk thickets on the imperceptible watershed of the long depression uniting Bruka and Bir Said. He told them gently that the Turks were coming on, and that it was their duty to hold them up and give God the credit of their victory; adding that this would become impossible if they went to sleep. The old men — and in Arabia elders mattered more than youths — broke out into delighted speech, and, after saying that God would give him a victory, or rather two victories, capped their wishes with a prayer that his life might be prolonged in the accumulation of an unprecedented number of victories. What was better, they kept effective watch all night, in the strength of his exhortation.
The routine of our life in camp was simple. Just before daybreak the army Imam used to climb to the head of the little hill above the sleeping army, and thence utter an astounding call to prayer. His voice was harsh and very powerful, and the hollow, like a sounding-board, threw echoes at the hills which returned them with indignant interest. We were effectually roused, whether we prayed or cursed. As soon as he ended, Feisal’s Imam cried gently and musically from just outside the tent. In a minute, one of Feisal’s five slaves (all freed men, but refusing discharge till it was their pleasure: since it was good and not unprofitable to be my lord’s servant) came round to Sharraf and myself with sweetened coffee. Sugar for the first cup in the chill of dawn was considered fit.
An hour or so later, the flap of Feisal’s sleeping tent would be thrown back: his invitation to callers from the household. There would be four or five present; and after the morning’s news a tray of breakfast would be carried in. The staple of this was dates in Wadi Yenbo; sometimes Feisal’s Circassian grandmother would send him a box of her famous spiced cakes from Mecca; and sometimes Hejris, the body slave, would give us odd biscuits and cereals of his own trying. After breakfast we would play with bitter coffee and sweet tea in alternation, while Feisal’s correspondence was dealt with by dictation to his secretaries. One of these was Faiz el Ghusein the adventurous; another was the Imam, a sad-faced person made conspicuous in the army by the baggy umbrella hanging from his saddle-bow. Occasionally a man was given private audience at this hour, but seldom; as the sleeping tent was strictly for the Sherif's own use. It was an ordinary bell tent, furnished with cigarettes, a camp-bed, a fairly good Kurd rug, a poor Shirazi, and the delightful old Baluch prayer-carpet on which he prayed.
At about eight o’clock in the morning, Feisal would buckle on his ceremonial dagger and walk across to the reception tent, which was floored with two horrible kilims. Feisal would sit down at the end of the tent facing the open side, and we with our backs against the wall, in a semicircle out from him. The slaves brought up the rear, and clustered round the open wall of the tent to control the besetting suppliants who lay on the sand in the tent-mouth, or beyond, waiting their turn. If possible, business was got through by noon, when the Emir liked to rise.
We of the household, and any guests, then reassembled in the living tent; and Hejris and Salem carried in the luncheon tray, on which were as many dishes as circumstances permitted. Feisal was an inordinate smoker, but a very light eater, and he used to make-believe with his fingers or a spoon among the beans, lentils, spinach, rice, and sweet cakes till he judged that we had had enough, when at a wave of his hand the tray would disappear, as other slaves walked forward to pour water for our fingers at the tent door. Fat men, like Mohammed Ibn Shefia, made a comic grievance of the Emir’s quick and delicate meals, and would have food of their own prepared for them when they came away. After lunch we would talk a little, while sucking up two cups of coffee, and savouring two glasses full of syrup-like green tea. Then till two in the afternoon the curtain of the living tent was down, signifying that Feisal was sleeping, or reading, or doing private business. Afterwards he would sit again in the reception tent till he had finished with all who wanted him. I never saw an Arab leave him dissatisfied or hurt — a tribute to his tact and to his memory; for he seemed never to halt for loss of a fact, nor to stumble over a relationship.
If there were time after second audience, he would walk with his friends, talking of horses or plants, looking at camels, or asking someone the names of the visible land features. The sunset prayer was at times public, though Feisal was not outwardly very pious. After it he saw people individually in the living tent, planning the night’s reconnaissances and patrols — for most of the field-work was done after dark. Between six and seven there was brought in the evening meal, to which all present in headquarters were called by the slaves. It resembled the lunch, except the cubes of boiled mutton were sorted through the great tray of rice, medfa el suhur, the mainstay of appetite. We observed silence till all had eaten.
This meal ended our day, save for the stealthy offering by a barefooted slave of a tray of tea-glasses at protracted intervals. Feisal did not sleep till very late, and never betrayed a wish to hasten our going. In the evening he relaxed as far as possible and avoided avoidable work. He would send out for some local sheikh to tell stories of the district, and histories of the tribe and its genealogy; or the tribal poets would sing us their war narratives: long traditional forms with stock epithets, stock sentiments, stock incidents grafted afresh on the efforts of each generation. Feisal was passionately fond of Arabic poetry, and would often provoke recitations, judging and rewarding the best verses of the night. Very rarely he would play chess, with the unthinking directness of a fencer, and brilliantly. Sometimes, perhaps for my benefit, he told stories of what he had seen in Syria, and scraps of Turkish secret history, or family affairs. I learned much of the men and parties in the Hejaz from his lips.
Suddenly Feisal asked me if I would wear Arab clothes like his own while in the camp. I should find it better for my own part, since it was a comfortable dress in which to live Arab-fashion as we must do. Besides, the tribesmen would then understand how to take me. The only wearers of khaki in their experience had been Turkish officers, before whom they took up an instinctive defence. If I wore Meccan clothes, they would behave to me as though I were really one of the leaders; and I might slip in and out of Feisal’s tent without making a sensation which he had to explain away each time to strangers. I agreed at once, very gladly; for army uniform was abominable when camel-riding or when sitting about on the ground; and the Arab things, which I had learned to manage before the war, were cleaner and more decent in the desert. Hejris was pleased, too, and exercised his fancy in fitting me out in splendid white silk and gold-embroidered wedding garments which had been sent to Feisal lately (was it a hint?) by his great-aunt in Mecca. I took a stroll in the new looseness of them round the palm-gardens of Mubarak and Bruka, to accustom myself to their feel.
These villages were pleasant little places, built of mud brick on the high earth mounds encircling the palm-gardens. Nakhl Mubarak lay to the north, and Bruka just south of it across a thorny valley. The houses were small, mud-washed inside, cool, and very clean, furnished with a mat or two, a coffee mortar, and food pots and trays. The narrow streets were shaded by an occasional well-grown tree. The earth embankments round the cultivated areas were sometimes fifty feet in height, and had been for the most part artificially formed from the surplus earth dug out between the trees, from household rubbish and from stones gathered out of the Wadi.
The banks were to defend the crops from flood. Wadi Yenbo otherwise would soon have filled the gardens, since these, to be irrigable, must be below the valley floor. The narrow plots were divided by fences of palm-ribs or by mud walls, with narrow streams of sweet water in raised channels round them. Each garden gate was over water, with a bridge of three or four parallel palm-logs built up to it for the passage of donkeys or camels. Each plot had a mud sluice, scooped away when its turn for watering came. The palms, regularly planted in ordered lines and well cared for, were the main crop; but between them were grown barley, radishes, marrows, cucumbers, tobacco and henna. Villages higher up Wadi Yenbo were cool enough to grow grapes.
Feisal’s stand in Nakhl Mubarak could in the nature of things only be a pause, and I felt that I had better get back to Yenbo, to think seriously about our amphibious defence of this port, the Navy having promised its every help. We settled that I should consult Zeid, and act with him as seemed best. Feisal gave me a magnificent bay camel for the trip back. We marched through the Agida hills by a new road, Wadi Messarih, because of a scare of Turkish patrols on the more direct line. Bedr ibn Shefia was with me; and we did the distance gently in a single stage of six hours, getting to Yenbo before dawn. Being tired after three strenuous days of little sleep among constant alarms and excitements I went straight to Garland’s empty house (he was living on board ship in the harbour) and fell asleep on a bench; but afterwards I was called out again by the news that Sherif Zeid was coming, and went down to the walls to see the beaten force ride in.
There were about eight hundred of them, quiet, but in no other way mortified by their shame. Zeid himself seemed finely indifferent. As he entered the town he turned and cried to Abd el Kadir, the Governor, riding behind him, Why, your town is ruinous! I must telegraph to my father for forty masons to repair the public buildings.’ And this actually he did. I had telegraphed to Captain Boyle that Yenbo was gravely threatened, and Boyle at once replied that his fleet would be there in time, if not sooner. This readiness was an opportune consolation: worse news came along next day. The Turks, by throwing a strong force forward from Bir Said against Nakhl Mubarak, had closed with Feisal’s levies while they were yet unsteady. After a short fight, Feisal had broken off, yielded his ground, and was retreating here. Our war seemed entering its last act. I took my camera, and from the parapet of the Medina gate got a fine photograph of the brothers coming in. Feisal had nearly two thousand men with him, but none of the Juheina tribesmen. It looked like treachery and a real defection of the tribes, things which both of us had ruled out of court as impossible.
I called at once at his house and he told me the history. The Turks had come on with three battalions and a number of mule-mounted infantry and camelry. Their command was in the hands of Ghalib Bey, who handled his troops with great keenness, acting as he did under the eye of the Corps Commander. Fakhru Pasha privately accompanied the expedition, whose guide and go-between with the Arabs was Dakhil-Allah el Kadhi, the hereditary law-giver of the Juheina, a rival of Sherif Mohammed Ali el Beidawi, and after him the second man in the tribe.
They got across Wadi Yenbo to the groves of Bruka in their first onset, and thus threatened the Arab communications with Yenbo. They were also able to shell Nakhl Mubarak freely with their seven guns. Feisal was not a whit dismayed, but threw out the Juheina on his left to work down the great valley. His centre and right he kept in Nakhl Mubarak, and he sent the Egyptian artillery to take post in Jebel Agida, to deny that to the Turks. Then he opened fire on Bruka with his own two fifteen-pounders.
Rasim, a Syrian officer, formerly a battery commander in the Turkish Army, was fighting these two guns; and he made a great demonstration with them. They had been sent down as a gift from Egypt, anyhow, old rubbish thought serviceable for the wild Arabs, just as the sixty thousand rifles supplied the Sherif were condemned weapons, relics of the Gallipoli campaign. So Rasim had no sights, nor range-finder, no range tables, no high explosive.
His distance might have been six thousand yards; but the fuses of his shrapnel were Boer War antiquities, full of green mould, and, if they burst, it was sometimes short in the air, and sometimes grazing. However, he had no means of getting his ammunition away if things went wrong, so he blazed off at speed, shouting with laughter at this fashion of making war; and the tribesmen seeing the commandant so merry took heart of grace themselves. ‘By God,’ said one, ‘those are the real guns: the Importance of their noise!’ Rasim swore that the Turks were dying in heaps; and the Arabs charged forward warmly, at his word.
Things were going well; and Feisal had the hope of a decisive success when suddenly his left wing in the valley wavered, halted; finally it turned its back on the enemy and retired tumultuously to the camping ground. Feisal, in the centre, galloped to Rasim and cried that the Juheina had broken and he was to save the guns. Rasim yoked up the teams and trotted away to Wadi Agida, wherein the Egyptians were taking counsel avidly with one another. After him streamed the Ageyl and the Atban, the men of Ibn Shefia, the Harb and Biasha. Feisal and his household composed the rear, and in deliberate procession they moved down towards Yenbo, leaving the Juheina with the Turks on the battlefield.
As I was still hearing of this sad end, and cursing with him the traitor Beidawi brothers, there was a stir about the door, and Abd el Kerim broke through the slaves, swung up to the dais, kissed Feisal’s head-rope in salutation, and sat down beside us. Feisal with a gasping stare at him said, ‘How?’ and Abd el Kerim explained their dismay at the sudden flight of Feisal, and how he with his brother and their gallant men had fought the Turks for the whole night, alone, without artillery, till the palm-groves became untenable and they too had been driven through Wadi Agida. His brother, with half the manhood of the tribe, was just entering the gate. The others had fallen back up Wadi Yenbo for water.
‘And why did you retire to the camp-ground behind us during the battle?’ asked Feisal. ‘Only to make ourselves a cup of coffee,’ said Abd el Kerim. We had fought from sunrise and it was dusk: we were very tired and thirsty.’ Feisal and I lay back and laughed: then we went to see what could be done to save the town.
The first step was simple. We sent all the Juheina back to Wadi Yenbo with orders to mass at Kheif, and keep up a steady pressure on the Turkish line of communications. They were also to push sniping parties down the Agida hills. This diversion would hold up so many of the Turks that they would be unable to bring against Yenbo a force superior in number to the defenders, who in addition had the advantage of a good position. The town on the top of its flat reef of coral rose perhaps twenty feet above the sea, and was compassed by water on two sides. The other two sides looked over flat stretches of sand, soft in places, destitute of cover for miles, and with no fresh water upon them anywhere. In daylight, if defended by artillery and machine-gun fire, they should be impregnable.
The artillery was arriving every minute; for Boyle, as usual far better than his word, had concentrated five ships on us in less than twenty-four hours. He put the monitor M.31, whose shallow draught fitted her for the job, in the end of the south-eastern creek of the harbour, whence she could rake the probable direction of a Turkish advance with her six-inch guns. Crocker, her captain, was very anxious to let off those itching guns. The larger ships were moored to fire over the town at longer range, or to rake the other flank from the northern harbour. The searchlights of Dufferin and M.31 crossed on the plain beyond the town.
The Arabs, delighted to count up the quantity of vessels in the harbour, were prepared to contribute their part to the night’s entertainment. They gave us good hope there would be no further panic: but to reassure them fully they needed some sort of rampart to defend, mediaeval fashion: it was no good digging trenches, partly because the ground was coral rock, and, besides, they had no experience of trenches and might not have manned them confidently. So we took the crumbling, salt-riddled wall of the place, doubled it with a second, packed earth between the two, and raised them till our sixteenth-century bastions were rifle-proof at least, and probably proof against the Turkish mountain guns. Outside the bastions we put barbed wire, festooned between cisterns on the rain catchments beyond the walls. We dug in machine-gun nests in the best angles, and manned them with Feisal’s regular gunners. The Egyptians, like everyone else given a place in the scheme, were gratifyingly happy. Garland was engineer-in-chief and chief adviser.
After sun-down the town quivered with suppressed excitement. So long as the day lasted there had been shouts and joy-shots and wild bursts of frenzy among the workmen; but when dark came they went back to feed and a hush fell. Nearly everyone sat up that night. There was one alarm about eleven o’clock. Our outposts had met the enemy only three miles outside the town. Garland, with a crier, went through the few streets, and called the garrison. They tumbled straight out and went to their places in dead silence without a shot or a loose shout. The seamen on the minaret sent warning to the ships, whose combined searchlights began slowly to traverse the plain in complex intersections, drawing pencils of wheeling light across the flats which the attacking force must cross. However, no sign was made and no cause given us to open fire.
Afterwards, old Dakhil Allah told me he had guided the Turks down to rush Yenbo in the dark that they might stamp out Feisal’s army once for all; but their hearts had failed them at the silence and the blaze of lighted ships from end to end of the harbour, with the eerie beams of the searchlights revealing the bleakness of the glacis they would have to cross. So they turned back: and that night, I believe, the Turks lost their war. Personally, I was on the Suva, to be undisturbed, and sleeping splendidly at last; so I was grateful to Dakhil Allah for the prudence which he preached the Turks, as though we might perhaps have won a glorious victory, I was ready to give much more for just that eight hours’ unbroken rest.
Next day the crisis had passed: the Turks had clearly failed. The Juheina were active in their flank position from Wadi Yenbo. Garland’s architectural efforts about the town became impressive. Sir Archibald Murray, to whom Feisal had appealed for a demonstration in Sinai to prevent further withdrawals of Turks for service at Medina, sent back an encouraging reply, and everybody was breathing easily. A few days later Boyle dispersed the ships, promising another lightning concentration upon another warning; and I took the opportunity to go down to Rabegh, where I met Colonel Bremond, the great bearded chief of the French Military Mission, and the only real soldier in Hejaz. He was still using his French detachment in Suez as a lever to move a British Brigade into Rabegh; and, since he suspected I was not wholly of his party, he made an effort to convert me.
In the course of the argument which followed, I said something about the need of soon attacking Medina; for, with the rest of the British, I believed that the fall of Medina was a necessary preliminary to any further progress of the Arab Revolt. He took me up sharply, saying that it was in no wise proper for the Arabs to take Medina. In his view, the Arab Movement had attained its maximum utility by the mere rebellion in Mecca; and military operations against Turkey were better in the unaided hands of Great Britain and France. He wished to land Allied troops at Rabegh, because it would quench the ardour of the tribes by making the Sherif suspect in their eyes. The foreign troops would then be his main defence, and his preservation be our work and option, until at the end of the war, when Turkey was defeated, the victorious Powers could extract Medina by treaty from the Sultan, and confer it upon Hussein, with the legal sovereignty of Hejaz, as his rewards for faithful service.
I had not his light confidence in our being strong enough to dispense with small allies; so I said shortly that my opinions were opposed to his. I laid the greatest weight on the immediate conquest of Medina, and was advising Feisal to seize Wejh, in order to prolong his threat against the railway. In sum, to my mind, the Arab Movement would not justify its creation if the enthusiasm of it did not carry the Arabs into Damascus.
This was unwelcome to him; for the Sykes-Picot Treaty of 1916 between France and England had been drawn by Sykes for this very eventuality; and, to reward it, stipulated the establishment of independent Arab states in Damascus, Aleppo and Mosul, districts which would otherwise fall to the unrestricted control of France. Neither Sykes nor Picot had believed the thing really possible; but I knew that it was, and believed that after it the vigour of the Arab Movement would prevent the creation — by us or others — in Western Asia of unduly ‘colonial’ schemes of exploitation.
Bremond took refuge in his technical sphere, and assured me, on his honour as a staff-officer, that for Feisal to leave Yenbo and go to Wejh was military suicide; but I saw no force in the arguments which he threw at me volubly; and told him so. It was a curious interview, that, between an old soldier and a young man in fancy dress; and it left a bad taste in my mouth. The Colonel, like his countrymen, was a realist in love, and war. Even in situations of poetry the French remained incorrigible prose-writers, seeing by the directly-thrown light of reason and understanding, not through the half-closed eye, mistily, by things’ essential radiance, in the manner of the imaginative British: so the two races worked ill together on a great undertaking. However, I controlled myself enough not to tell any Arab of the conversation, but sent a full account of it to Colonel Wilson, who was shortly coming up to see Feisal for a discussion of the Wejh prospect in all its bearings.
Before Wilson arrived the centre of Turkish gravity changed abruptly. Fakhri Pashi had seen the hopelessness of attacking Yenbo, or of driving after the intangible Juheina in Kheif Hussein. Also he was being violently bombed in Nakhl Mubarak itself by a pair of British seaplanes which did hardy flights over the desert and got well into the enemy on two occasions, despite their shrapnel.
Consequently he decided to fall back in a hurry on Bir Said, leaving a small force there to check the Juheina, and to move down the Sultani road towards Rabegh with the bulk of his men. These changes were no doubt partly impelled by the unusual vigour of Ali at Rabegh. As soon as Ali had heard of Zeid’s defeat he had sent him reinforcements and guns; and when Feisal himself collapsed he decided to move north with all his army, to attack the Turks in Wadi Safra and draw them off Yenbo. Ali had nearly seven thousand men; and Feisal felt that if the move was synchronized with one on his part, Fakhri’s force might be crushed between them in the hills. He telegraphed, suggesting this, asking for a delay of a few days till his shaken men were ready.
Ali was strung up and would not wait. Feisal therefore rushed Zeid out to Masahali in Wadi Yenbo to make preparations. When these were complete he sent Zeid on to occupy Bir Said, which was done successfully. He then ordered the Juheina forward in support. They demurred; for ibn Beidawi was jealous of Feisal’s growing power among his tribes, and wanted to keep himself indispensable. Feisal rode unattended to Nakhl Mubarak, and in one night convinced the Juheina that he was their leader. Next morning they were all moving, while he went on to collect the northern Harb on the Tasha Pass to interrupt the Turkish retreat in Wadi Safra. He had nearly six thousand men; and if Ali took the southern bank of the valley the weak Turks would be between two fires.
Unfortunately it did not happen. When actually on the move he heard from Ali that, after a peaceful recovery of Bir ibn Hassani, his men had been shaken by false reports of disloyalty among the Subh, and had fallen back in rapid disorder to Babegh.
In this ominous pause Colonel Wilson came up to Yenbo to persuade us of the necessity of an immediate operation against Wejh. An amended plan had been drawn up whereby Feisal would take the whole force of the Juheina, and his permanent battalions, against Wejh with the maximum of naval help. This strength would make success reasonably sure, but it left Yenbo empty and defenceless. For the moment Feisal dreaded incurring such a risk. He pointed out, not unreasonably, that the Turks in his neighbourhood were still mobile; that Ali’s force had proved hollow, unlikely to defend even Babegh against serious attack; and that, as Babegh was the bulwark of Mecca, sooner than see it lost he must throw away Yenbo and ferry himself and men thither to die fighting on its beach.
To reassure him, Wilson painted the Babegh force in warm colours. Feisal checked his sincerity by asking for his personal word that the Babegh garrison, with British naval help, would resist enemy attack till Wejh fell. Wilson looked for support round the silent deck of the Dufferin (on which we were conferring), and nobly gave the required assurance: a wise gamble, since without it Feisal would not move; and this diversion against Wejh, the only offensive in the Arabs’ power, was their last chance not so much of securing a convincing siege of Medina, as of preventing the Turkish capture of Mecca. A few days later he strengthened himself by sending Feisal direct orders from his father, the Sherif, to proceed to Wejh at once, with all his available troops.
Meanwhile the Babegh situation grew worse. The enemy in Wadi Safra and the Sultani road were estimated at nearly five thousand men. The Harb of the north were suppliant to them for preservation of their palm-groves. The Harb of the south, those of Hussein Mabeirig, notoriously waited their advance to attack the Sherifians in the rear. At a conference of Wilson, Bremond, Joyce, Boss and others, held in Babegh on Christmas Eve, it was decided to lay out on the beach by the aerodrome a small position, capable of being held under the ship’s guns by the Egyptians, the Flying Corps and a seamen’s landing party from the Minerva, for the few hours needed to embark or destroy the stores. The Turks were advancing step by step; and the place was not in condition to resist one well-handled battalion supported by field artillery.
However, Fakhri was too slow. He did not pass Bir el Sheikh in any force till near the end of the first week in January, and seven days later was still not ready to attack Khoreiba, where Ali had an outpost of a few hundred men. The patrols were in touch; and an assault was daily expected, but as regularly delayed.
In truth the Turks were meeting with unguessed difficulties. Their headquarters were faced by a heavy sick rate among the men, and a growing weakness of the animals: both symptoms of overwork and lack of decent food. Always the activity of the tribesmen behind their back hampered them. Clans might sometimes fall away from the Arab cause, but did not therefore become trustworthy adherents of the Turks, who soon found themselves in ubiquitously hostile country. The tribal raids in the first fortnight of January caused them average daily losses of forty camels and some twenty men killed and wounded, with corresponding expense in stores.
These raids might occur at any point from ten miles seaward of Medina itself for the next seventy miles through the hills. They illustrated the obstacles in the way of the new Turkish Army with its half-Germanized complexity of equipment, when, from a distant railhead with no made roads, it tried to advance through extremely rugged and hostile country. The administrative developments of scientific war had clogged its mobility and destroyed its dash; and troubles grew in geometrical rather than arithmetical progression for each new mile its commanding officers put between themselves and Medina, their ill-found, insecure and inconvenient base.
The situation was so unpromising for the Turks that Fakhri was probably half glad when the forthcoming sudden moves of Abdulla and Feisal in the last days of 1916 altered the strategic conception of the Hejaz war, and hurried the Mecca expedition (after January the eighteenth 1917) back from the Sultani and the Fara and the Gaha roads, back from Wadi Safra, to hold a passive defence of trenches within sight of the walls of Medina: a static position which endured till the Armistice ended the war and involved Turkey in the dismal surrender of the Holy City and its helpless garrison.
Feisal was a fine, hot workman, whole-heartedly doing a thing when he had agreed to it. He had pledged his word that he would go at once to Wejh; so he and I sat down together on new-year’s day for consideration of what this move meant to us and to the Turks. Around us, stretching up and down the Wadi Yenbo for miles, in little groups round palm-gardens, under the thicker trees, and in all the side tributaries, wherever there was shelter from the sun and rain, or good grazing for the camels, were the soldiers of our army. The mountaineers, half-naked footmen, had grown few. Most of the six thousand present were mounted men of substance. Their coffee hearths were outlined from afar by the camel saddles, pitched in circles round the fire as elbow-rests for men reclining between meals. The Arabs’ physical perfection let them lie relaxed to the stony ground like lizards, moulding themselves to its roughness in corpse-like abandon.
They were quiet but confident. Some, who had been serving Feisal for six months or more, had lost that pristine heat of eagerness which had so thrilled me in Hamra; but they had gained experience in compensation; and staying-power in the ideal was fatter and more important for us than an early fierceness. Their patriotism was now conscious; and their attendance grew more regular as the distance from their tomes increased. Tribal independence of orders was still maintained; but they had achieved a mild routine in camp life and on the march. When the Sherif came near they fell into a ragged line, and together made the bow and sweep of the arm to the lips, which was the official salute. They did not oil their guns: they said lest the sand clog them; also they had no oil, and it was better rubbed in to soften wind-chaps on their skin; but the guns were decently kept, and some of the owners could shoot at long range.
In mass they were not formidable, since they had no corporate spirit, nor discipline nor mutual confidence. The smaller the unit the better its performance. A thousand were a mob, ineffective against a company of trained Turks: but three or four Arabs in their hills would stop a dozen Turks. Napoleon remarked this of the Mamelukes. We were yet too breathless to turn our hasty practice into principle: our tactics were empirical snatchings of the first means to escape difficulty. But we were learning like our men.
From the battle of Nakhl Mubarak we abandoned the brigading of Egyptian troops with irregulars. We embarked the Egyptian officers and men, after turning over their complete equipment to Rasim, Feisal’s gunner, and Abdulla el Deleimi, his machine-gun officer. They built up Arab companies out of local material, with a stiffening of Turk-trained Syrian and Mesopotamian deserters. Maulud, the fire-eating A.D.C., begged fifty mules off me, put across them fifty of his trained infantrymen, and told them they were cavalry. He was a martinet, and a born mounted officer, and by his spartan exercises the much-beaten mule-riders grew painfully into excellent soldiers, instantly obedient and capable of formal attack. They were prodigies in the Arab ranks. We telegraphed for another fifty mules, to double the dose of mounted infantry, since the value of so tough a unit for reconnaissance was obvious.
Feisal suggested taking nearly all the Juheina to Wejh with him and adding to them enough of the Harb and Billi, Ateiba and Ageyl to give the mass a many-tribed character. We wanted this march, which would be in its way a closing act of the war in Northern Hejaz, to send a rumour through the length and breadth of Western Arabia. It was to be the biggest operation of the Arabs in their memory; dismissing those who saw it to their homes, with a sense that their world had changed indeed; so that there would be no more silly defections and jealousies of clans behind us in future, to cripple us with family politics in the middle of our fighting.
Not that we expected immediate opposition. We bothered to take this unwieldy mob with us to Wejh, in the teeth of efficiency and experience, just because there was no fighting in the bill. We had intangible assets on our side. In the first place, the Turks had now engaged their surplus strength in attacking Rabegh, or rather in prolonging their occupied area so as to attack Rabegh. It would take them days to transfer back north. Then the Turks were stupid, and we reckoned on their not hearing all at once of our move, and on their not believing its first tale, and not seeing till later what chances it had given them. If we did our march in three weeks we should probably take Wejh by surprise. Lastly, we might develop the sporadic raiding activity of the Harb into conscious operations, to take booty, if possible, in order to be self-supporting; but primarily to lock up large numbers of Turks in defence positions. Zeid agreed to go down to Rabegh to organize similar pin-pricks in the Turks’ rear. I gave him letters to the captain of the Dufferin, the Yenbo guardship, which would ensure him a quick passage down: for all who knew of the Wejh scheme were agog to help it.
To exercise my own hand in the raiding genre I took a test party of thirty-five Mahamid with me from Nakhl Mubarak, on the second day of 1917, to the old blockhouse-well of my first journey from Rabegh to Yenbo. When dark came we dismounted, and left our camels with ten men to guard them against possible Turkish patrols. The rest of us climbed up Dhifran: a painful climb, for the hills were of knife-sharp strata turned on edge and running in oblique lines from crest to foot. They gave abundance of broken surface, but no sure grip, for the stone was so minutely cracked that any segment would come away from its matrix, in the hand.
The head of Dhifran was cold and misty, and time dragged till dawn. We disposed ourselves in crevices of the rock, and at last saw the tips of bell-tents three hundred yards away beneath us to the right, behind a spur. We could not get a full view, so contented ourselves with putting bullets through their tops. A crowd of Turks turned out and leaped like stags into their trenches. They were very fast targets, and probably suffered little. In return they opened rapid fire in every direction, and made a terrific row; as if signalling the Hamra force to turn out in their help. As the enemy were already more than ten to one, the reinforcements might have prevented our retreat: so we crawled gently back till we could rush down into the first valley, where we fell over two scared Turks, unbuttoned, at their morning exercise. They were ragged, but something to show, and we dragged them homeward, where their news proved useful.
Feisal was still nervous over abandoning Yenbo, hitherto his indispensable base, and the second sea-port of Hejaz: and when casting about for further expedients to distract the Turks from its occupation we suddenly remembered Sidi Abdulla in Henakiyeh. He had some five thousand irregulars, and a few guns and machine-guns, and the reputation of his successful (if too slow) siege of Taif. It seemed a shame to leave him wasting in the middle of the wilderness. A first idea was that he might come to Kheibar, to threaten the railway north of Medina: but Feisal improved my plan vastly, by remembering Wadi Ais, the historic valley of springs and palm-villages flowing through the impregnable Juheina hills from behind Rudhwa eastward to the Hamdh valley near Hedia. It lay just one hundred kilometres north of Medina, a direct threat on Fakhri’s railway communications with Damascus. From it Abdulla could keep up his arranged blockade of Medina from the east, against caravans from the Persian Gulf. Also it was near Yenbo, which could easily feed him there with munitions and supplies.
The proposal was obviously an inspiration and we sent off Raja el Khuluwi at once to put it to Abdulla. So sure were we of his adopting it that we urged Feisal to move away from Wadi Yenbo northward on the first stage to Wejh, without waiting a reply.
He agreed, and we took the wide upper road through Wadi Messarih, for Owais, a group of wells about fifteen miles to the north of Yenbo. The hills were beautiful to-day. The rains of December had been abundant, and the warm sun after them had deceived the earth into believing it was spring. So a thin grass had come up in all the hollows and flat places. The blades (single, straight and very slender) shot up between the stones. If a man bent over from his saddle and looked downward he would see no new colour in the ground; but, by looking forward, and getting a distant slope at a flat angle with his eye, he could feel a lively mist of pale green here and there over the surface of slate-blue and brown-red rock. In places the growth was strong, and our painstaking camels had become prosperous, grazing on it.
The starting signal went, but only for us and the Ageyl. The other units of the army, standing each man by his couched camel, lined up beside our road, and, as Feisal came near, saluted him in silence. He called back cheerfully, ‘Peace upon you’, and each head sheikh returned the phrase. When we had passed they mounted, taking the time from their chiefs, and so the forces behind us swelled till there was a line of men and camels winding along the narrow pass towards the watershed for as far back as the eye reached.
Feisal’s greetings had been the only sounds before we reached the crest of the rise where the valley opened out and became a gentle forward slope of soft shingle and flint bedded in sand: but there ibn Dakhil, the keen sheikh of Russ, who had raised this contingent of Ageyl two years before to aid Turkey, and had brought it over with him intact to the Sherif when the revolt came, dropped back a pace or two, marshalled our following into a broad column of ordered ranks, and made the drums strike up. Everyone burst out singing a full-throated song in honour of Emir Feisal and his family.
The march became rather splendid and barbaric. First rode Feisal in white, then Sharraf at his right in red head-cloth and henna-dyed tunic and cloak, myself on his left in white and scarlet, behind us three banners of faded crimson silk with gilt spikes, behind them the drummers playing a march, and behind them again the wild mass of twelve hundred bouncing camels of the bodyguard, packed as closely as they could move, the men in every variety of coloured clothes and the camels nearly as brilliant in their trappings. We filled the valley to its banks with our flashing stream.
At the mouth of Messarih, a messenger rode up with letters to Feisal from Abd el Kader, in Yenbo. Among them was one three days old for me from the Dufferin to say that she would not embark Zeid till she had seen me and heard details of the local situation. She was in the Sherm, a lonely creek eight miles up the coast from the port, where the officers could play cricket on the beach without the plague of flies pervading Yenbo. Of course, they cut themselves off from news by staying so far away: it was a point of old friction between us. Her well-meaning commander had not the breadth of Boyle, the fiery politician and revolutionary constitutionalist, nor the brain of Linberry, of the Hardinge, who filled himself with the shore gossip of every port he touched, and who took pains to understand the nature of all classes on his beat.
Apparently I had better race off to Dufferin and regulate affairs. Zeid was a nice fellow, but would assuredly do something quaint in his enforced holiday; and we needed peace just then. Feisal sent some Ageyl with me and we made speed for Yenbo: indeed, I got there in three hours, leaving my disgusted escort (who said they would wear out neither camels nor bottoms for my impatience) half way back on the road across the plain so wearily well known to me. The sun, which had been delightful overhead in the hills, now, in the evening, shone straight into our faces with a white fury, before which I had to press my hand as shield over my eyes. Feisal had given me a racing camel (a present from the Emir of Nejd to his father), the finest and roughest animal I had ridden. Later she died of overwork, mange, and necessary neglect on the road to Akaba.
On arrival in Yenbo things were not as expected. Zeid had been embarked, and the Dufferin had started that morning for Rabegh. So I sat down to count what we needed of naval help on the way to Wejh, and to scheme out means of transport. Feisal had promised to wait at Owais till he got my report that everything was ready.
The first check was a conflict between the civil and military powers. Abd el Kader, the energetic but temperamental governor, had been cluttered up with duties as our base grew in size, till Feisal added to him a military commandant, Tewfik Bey, a Syrian from Horns, to care for ordnance stores. Unfortunately, there was no arbiter to define ordnance stores. That morning they fell out over empty arms-chests. Abd el Kadir locked the store and went to lunch. Tewfik came down to the quay with four men, a machine-gun and a sledge hammer, and opened the door. Abd el Kader got into a boat, rowed out to the British guardship — the tiny Espiegle— and told her embarrassed but hospitable captain that he had come to stay. His servant brought him food from the shore and he slept the night in a camp-bed on the quarter-deck.
I wanted to hurry, so began to solve the deadlock by making Abd el Kadir write to Feisal for his decision and by making Tewfik hand over the store to me. We brought the trawler Arethusa near the sloop, that Abd el Kader might direct the loading of the disputed chests from his ship, and lastly brought Tewfik off to the Espiegle for a temporary reconciliation. It was made easy by an accident, for, as Tewfik saluted his guard of honour at the gangway (not strictly regular, this guard, but politic), his face beamed and he said: This ship captured me at Kurna, pointing to the trophy of the nameplate of the Turkish gunboat Marmaris, which the Espiegle had sunk in action on the Tigris. Abd el Kadir was as interested in the tale as Tewfik, and the trouble ceased.
Sharraf came into Yenbo next day as Emir, in Feisal’s place. He was a powerful man, perhaps the most capable of all the Sherifs in the army, but devoid of ambition: acting out of duty, not from impulse. He was rich, and had been for years chief justice of the Sherifs court. He knew and handled tribesmen better than any man, and they feared him, for he was severe and impartial, and his face was sinister, with a left eyebrow which drooped (the effect of an old blow) and gave him an air of forbidding hardness. The surgeon of the Suva operated on the eye and repaired much of the damage, but the face remained one to rebuke liberties or weakness. I found him good to work with, very clear-headed, wise and kind, with a pleasant smile-his mouth became soft then, while his eyes remained terrible-and a determination to do fittingly, always.
We agreed that the risk of the fall of Yenbo while we hunted Wejh was great, and that it would be wise to empty it of stores. Boyle gave me an opportunity by signalling that either Dufferin or Hardinge would be made available for transport. I replied that as difficulties would be severe I preferred Hardinge! Captain Warren, whose ship intercepted the message, felt it superfluous, but it brought along Hardinge in the best temper two days later. She was an Indian troop-ship, and her lowest troop-deck had great square ports along the water level. Linberry opened these for us, and we stuffed straight in eight thousand rifles, three million rounds of ammunition, thousands of shells, quantities of rice and flour, a shed-full of uniforms, two tons of high explosive, and all our petrol, pell-mell. It was like posting letters in a box. In no time she had taken a thousand tons of stuff.
Boyle came in eager for news. He promised the Hardinge as depot ship throughout, to land food and water whenever needed, and this solved the main difficulty. The Navy were already collecting. Half the Red Sea Fleet would be present. The admiral was expected and landing parties were being drilled on every ship. Everyone was dyeing white duck khaki-coloured, or sharpening bayonets, or practising with rifles.
I hoped silently, in their despite, that there would be no fighting. Feisal had nearly ten thousand men, enough to fill the whole Billi country with armed parties and carry off everything not too heavy or too hot. The Billi knew it, and were now profuse in their loyalties to the Sherif, completely converted to Arab nationality.
It was sure that we would take Wejh: the fear was lest numbers of Feisal’s host die of hunger or thirst on the way. Supply was my business, and rather a responsibility. However, the country to Urn Lejj, half way, was friendly: nothing tragic could happen so far as that: therefore, we sent word to Feisal that all was ready, and he left Owais on the very day that Abdulla replied welcoming the Ais plan and promising an immediate start thither. The same day came news of my relief. Newcombe, the regular colonel being sent to Hejaz as chief of our military mission, had arrived in Egypt, and his two staff officers, Cox and Vickery, were actually on their way down the Red Sea, to join this expedition.
Boyle took me to Um Lejj in the Suva, and we went ashore to get the news. The sheikh told us that Feisal would arrive to-day, at Bir el Waheidi, the water supply, four miles inland. We sent up a message for him and then walked over to the fort which Boyle had shelled some months before from the Fox. It was just a rubble barrack, and Boyle looked at the ruins and said: Tm rather ashamed of myself for smashing such a potty place.’ He was a very professional officer, alert, businesslike and official; sometimes a little intolerant of easy-going things and people. Red-haired men are seldom patient. ‘Ginger Boyle’, as they called him, was warm.
While we were looking over the ruins four grey ragged elders of the village came up and asked leave to speak. They said that some months before a sudden two-funnelled ship had come up and destroyed their fort. They were now required to re-build it for the police of the Arab Government. Might they ask the generous captain of this peaceable one-funnelled ship for a little timber, or for other material help towards the restoration? Boyle was restless at their long speech, and snapped at me, What is it? What do they want?’ I said, ‘Nothing; they were describing the terrible effect of the Fox’s bombardment.’ Boyle looked round him for a moment and smiled grimly, ‘It’s a fair mess’.
Next day Vickery arrived. He was a gunner, and in his ten years’ service in the Sudan had learned Arabic, both literary and colloquial, so well that he would quit us of all need of an interpreter. We arranged to go up with Boyle to Feisal’s camp to make the timetable for the attack, and after lunch Englishmen and Arabs got to work and discussed the remaining march to Wejh.
We decided to break the army into sections: and that these should proceed independently to our concentration place of Abu Zereibat in Hamdh, after which there was no water before Wejh; but Boyle agreed that the Hardinge should take station for a single night in Sherm Habban — supposed to be a possible harbour — and land twenty tons of water for us on the beach. So that was settled.
For the attack on Wejh we offered Boyle an Arab landing party of several hundred Harb and Juheina peasantry and freed men, under Saleh ibn Shefia, a negroid boy of good courage (with the faculty of friendliness) who kept his men in reasonable order by conjurations and appeals, and never minded how much his own dignity was outraged by them or by us. Boyle accepted them and decided to put them on another deck of the many-stomached Hardinge. They, with the naval party, would land north of the town, where the Turks had no post to block a landing, and whence Wejh and its harbour were best turned.
Boyle would have at least six ships, with fifty guns to occupy the Turks’ minds, and a seaplane ship to direct the guns. We would be at Abu Zereibat on the twentieth of the month: at Habban for the Hardinge’s water on the twenty-second: and the landing party should go ashore at dawn on the twenty-third, by which time our mounted men would have closed all roads of escape from the town.
The news from Rabegh was good; and the Turks had made no attempt to profit by the nakedness of Yenbo. These were our hazards, and when Boyle’s wireless set them at rest we were mightily encouraged. Abdulla was almost in Ais: we were half-way to Wejh: the initiative had passed to the Arabs. I was so joyous that for a moment I forgot my self-control, and said exultingly that in a year we would be tapping on the gates of Damascus. A chill came over the feeling in the tent and my hopefulness died. Later, I heard that Vickery had gone to Boyle and vehemently condemned me as a braggart and visionary; but, though the outburst was foolish, it was not an impossible dream, for five months later I was in Damascus, and a year after that I was its de facto Governor.
Vickery had disappointed me, and I had angered him. He knew I was militarily incompetent and thought me politically absurd. I knew he was the trained soldier our cause needed, and yet he seemed blind to its power. The Arabs nearly made shipwreck through this blindness of European advisers, who would not see that rebellion was not war: indeed, was more of the nature of peace — a national strike perhaps. The conjunction of Semites, an idea, and an armed prophet held illimitable possibilities; in skilled hands it would have been, not Damascus, but Constantinople which was reached in 1918.
Early next morning, having seen that the Hardinge was unloading without friction, I went ashore to Sheikh Yusuf, and found him helping his Bisha police, the frightened villagers and a squad of old Maulud’s men to throw a quick barricade across the end of the main street. He told me that fifty wild mules, without halter or bridle or saddle, had been loosed on shore that morning from a ship. By luck rather than skill they had been stampeded into the market-place: the exits were now safely barred, and there they must remain, ramping about the stalls, till Maulud, to whom they were addressed, invented saddlery in the wilderness. This was the second batch of fifty mules for the mounted unit, and by the chance of our fear at Yenbo we, fortunately, had spare ropes and bits enough for them on board the Hardinge. So by noon the shops were again open, and the damage paid for.
I went up to Feisal’s camp, which was busy. Some of the tribes were drawing a month’s wages; all were getting eight days’ food; tents and heavy baggage were being stored; and the last arrangement for the march being made. I sat and listened to the chatter of the staff: Faiz el Ghusein, Beduin sheikh, Turkish official, chronicler of the Armenian massacres, now secretary; Nesib el Bekri, Damascene land-owner, and Feisal’s host in Syria, now exiled from his country with a death-sentence over him; Sami, Nesib’s brother, graduate of the Law School, and now assistant paymaster; Shefik el Eyr, ex-journalist, now assistant secretary, a little white-faced man, and furtive, with a whispering manner, honest in his patriotism, but in Me perverse, and so a nasty colleague.
Hassan Sharaf, the headquarters’ doctor, a noble man who had put not merely his Me, but his purse to service in the Arab cause, was plaintive with excess of disgust at finding his phials smashed and their drugs confounded in the bottom of his chest. Shefik rallying him, said, ‘Do you expect a rebellion to be comfortable?’ and the contrast with the pale misery of their manner delighted us. In hardships the humour of triteness outweighed a whole world of wit.
With Feisal in the evening we talked of the coming marches. The first stage was short: to Semna, where were palm-groves and wells of abundant water. After that there was choice of ways, to be determined only when our scouts returned with reports as to ponded rainwater. By the coast, the straight road, it was sixty dry miles to the next well, and our multitude of footmen would find that long.
The army at Bir el Waheida amounted to five thousand one hundred camel-riders, and five thousand three hundred men on foot, with four Krupp mountain guns, and ten machine-guns: and for transport we had three hundred and eighty baggage camels. Everything was cut to the lowest, far below the standard of the Turks. Our start was set for January the eighteenth just after noon, and punctually by lunch-time Feisal’s work was finished. We were a merry party: Feisal himself, relaxed after responsibility, Abd el Kerim, never very serious, Sherif Jabar, Nasib and Sami, Shefik, Hassan Sharaf and myself. After lunch the tent was struck. We went to our camels, where they were couched in a circle, saddled and loaded, each held short by the slave standing on its doubled foreleg. The kettle drummer, waiting beside ibn Dakhil, who commanded the bodyguard, rolled his drum seven or eight times, and everything became still. We watched Feisal. He got up from his rug, on which he had been saying a last word to Abd el Kerim, caught the saddle-pommels in his hands, put his knee on the side and said aloud, ‘Make God your agent’. The slave released the camel, which sprang up. When it was on its feet Feisal passed his other leg across its back, swept his skirts and his cloak under him by a wave of the arm, and settled himself in the saddle.
As his camel moved we had jumped for ours, and the whole mob rose together, some of the beasts roaring, but the most quiet, as trained she-camels should be. Only a young animal, a male or ill-bred, would grumble on the road, and self-respecting Beduins did not ride such, since the noise might give them away by night or in surprise attacks. The camels took their first abrupt steps, and we riders had quickly to hook our legs round the front cantles, and pick up the head-stalls to check the pace. We then looked where Feisal was, and tapped our mounts’ heads gently round, and pressed them on the shoulders with our bare feet till they were in line beside him. Ibn Dakhil came up, and after a glance at the country and the direction of march passed a short order for the Ageyl to arrange themselves in wings, out to right and left of us for two or three hundred yards, camel marching by camel in line as near as the accidents underfoot permitted. The manoeuvre was neatly done.
These Ageyl were Nejd townsmen, the youth of Aneyza, Boreida or Russ, who had contracted for service as regular camel corps for a term of years. They were young, from sixteen to twenty-five, and nice fellows, large-eyed, cheery, a bit educated, catholic, intelligent, good companions on the road. There was seldom a heavy one. Even in repose (when most Eastern faces emptied themselves of life) these lads remained keen-looking and handsome. They talked a delicate and elastic Arabic, and were mannered, often foppish, in habit. The docility and reasonableness of their town-bred minds made them look after themselves and their masters without reiterated instructions. Their fathers dealt in camels, and they had followed the trade from infancy; consequently they wandered instinctively, like Beduin; while the decadent softness in their nature made them biddable, tolerant of the harshness and physical punishment which in the East were the outward proofs of discipline. They were essentially submissive; yet had the nature of soldiers, and fought with brains and courage when familiarly led.
Not being a tribe, they had no blood enemies, but passed freely in the desert: the carrying trade and chaffer of the interior lay in their hands. The gains of the desert were poor, but enough to tempt them abroad, since the conditions of their home-life were uncomfortable. The Wahabis, followers of a fanatical Moslem heresy, had imposed their strict rules on easy and civilized Kasim. In Kasim there was but little coffee-hospitality, much prayer and fasting, no tobacco, no artistic dalliance with women, no silk clothes, no gold and silver head-ropes or ornaments. Everything was forcibly pious or forcibly puritanical.
It was a natural phenomenon, this periodic rise at intervals of little more than a century, of ascetic creeds in Central Arabia. Always the votaries found their neighbours’ beliefs cluttered with inessential things, which became impious in the hot imagination of their preachers. Again and again they had arisen, had taken possession, soul and body, of the tribes, and had dashed themselves to pieces on the urban Semites, merchants and concupiscent men of the world. About their comfortable possessions the new creeds ebbed and flowed like the tides or the changing seasons, each movement with the seeds of early death in its excess of Tightness. Doubtless they must recur so long as the causes — sun, moon, wind, acting in the emptiness of open spaces, weigh without check on the unhurried and uncumbered minds of the desert-dwellers.
However, this afternoon the Ageyl were not thinking of God, but of us, and as ibn Dakhil ranged them to the right and left they fell eagerly into rank. There came a warning patter from the drums and the poet of the right wing burst into strident song, a single invented couplet, of Feisal and the pleasures he would afford us at Wejh. The right wing listened to the verse intently, took it up and sang it together once, twice and three times, with pride and self-satisfaction and derision. However, before they could brandish it a fourth time the poet of the left wing broke out in extempore reply, in the same metre, in answering rhyme, and capping the sentiment. The left wing cheered it in a roar of triumph, the drums tapped again, the standard-bearers threw out their great crimson banners, and the whole guard, right, left and centre, broke together into the rousing regimental chorus,
I’ve lost Britain, and I’ve lost Gaul, I’ve lost Rome, and, worst of all, I’ve lost Lalage —’
only it was Nejd they had lost, and the women of the Maabda, and their future lay from Jidda towards Suez. Yet it was a good song, with a rhythmical beat which the camels loved, so that they put down their heads, stretched their necks out far and with lengthened pace shuffled forward musingly while it lasted.
Our road to-day was easy for them, since it was over firm sand slopes, long, slowly-rising waves of dunes, bare-backed, but for scrub in the folds, or barren palm-trees solitary in the moist depressions. Afterwards in a broad flat, two horsemen came cantering across from the left to greet Feisal. I knew the first one, dirty old blear-eyed Mohammed Ali el Beidawi, Emir of the Juheina: but the second looked strange. When he came nearer I saw he was in khaki uniform, with a cloak to cover it and a silk head-cloth and head-rope, much awry. He looked up, and there was Newcombe’s red and peeling face, with straining eyes and vehement mouth, a strong, humorous grin between the jaws. He had arrived at Um Lejj this morning, and hearing we were only just off, had seized Sheikh Yu-suf’s fastest horse and galloped after us.
I offered him my spare camel and an introduction to Feisal, whom he greeted like an old school-friend; and at once they plunged into the midst of things, suggesting, debating, planning at lightning speed. Newcombe’s initial velocity was enormous, and the freshness of the day and the life and happiness of the Army gave inspiration to the march and brought the future bubbling out of us without pain.
We passed Ghowashia, a ragged grove of palms, and marched over a lava-field easily, its roughnesses being drowned in sand just deep enough to smooth them, but not deep enough to be too soft. The tops of the highest lava-piles showed through. An hour later we came suddenly to a crest which dropped as a sand slope, abrupt and swept and straight enough to be called a sand-cliff, into a broad splendid valley of rounded pebbles. This was Semna, and our road went down the steep, through terraces of palms.
The wind had been following our march, and so it was very still and warm at bottom of the valley in lee of the great bank of sand. Here was our water, and here we would halt till the scouts returned from seeking rain-pools in front of us; for so Abd el Kerim, our chief guide, had advised. We rode the four hundred yards across the valley and up the further slopes till we were safe from floods, and there Feisal tapped his camel lightly on the neck till she sank to her knees with a scrape of shingle pushed aside, and settled herself. Hejris spread the carpet for us, and with the other Sherifs we sat and jested while the coffee was made hot.
I maintained against Feisal the greatness of Ibrahim Pasha, leader of Milli-Kurds, in North Mesopotamia. When he was to march, his women rose before dawn, and footing noiselessly overhead on the taut tentcloth, unskewered the strips of it, while others beneath held and removed the poles till all was struck and divided into camel-loads, and loaded. Then they drove off, so that the Pasha awoke alone on his pallet in the open air where at night he had lain down in the rich inner compartment of his palace-tent.
He would get up at leisure and drink coffee on his carpet: and afterwards the horses would be brought, and they would ride towards the new camping ground. But if on his way he thirsted he would crisp his fingers to the servants, and the coffee man would ride up beside him with his pots ready and his brazier burning on a copper bracket of the saddle, to serve the cup on the march without breaking stride; and at sunset they would find the women waiting in the erected tent, as it had been on the evening before.
To-day had a grey weather, so strange after the many thronging suns, that Newcombe and I walked stooping to look where our shadows had gone, as we talked of what I hoped, and of what he wanted.
They were the same thing, so we had brain-leisure to note Semna and its fine groves of cared-for palms between little hedges of dead thorn; with here and there huts of reed and palm-rib, to shelter the owners and their families at times of fertilization and harvest. In the lowest gardens and in the valley bed were the shallow wood-lined wells, whose water was, they said, fairly sweet and never-failing: but so little fluent that to water our host of camels took the night.
Feisal wrote letters from Semna to twenty-five leaders of the Billi and Howeitat and Beni Atiyeh, saying that he with his army would be instantly in Wejh and they must see to it. Mohammed Ali bestirred himself, and since almost all our men were of his tribe, was useful in arranging the detachments and detailing them their routes for the morrow. Our water-scouts had come in, to report shallow pools at two points well-spaced on the coast road. After cross-questioning them we decided to send four sections that way, and the other five by the hills: in such a fashion we thought we should arrive soonest and safest at Abu Zereibat.
The route was not easy to decide with the poor help of the Musa Juheina, our informants. They seemed to have no unit of time smaller than the half-day, or of distance between the span and the stage; and a stage might be from six to sixteen hours according to the man’s will and camel. Intercommunication between our units was hindered because often there was no one who could read or write, in either. Delay, confusion, hunger and thirst marred this expedition. These might have been avoided had time let us examine the route beforehand. The animals were without food for nearly three days, and the men marched the last fifty miles on half a gallon of water, with nothing to eat. It did not in any way dim their spirit, and they trotted into Wejh gaily enough, hoarsely singing, and executing mock charges: but Feisal said that another hot and barren midday would have broken both their speed and their energy.
When business ended, Newcombe and I went off to sleep in the tent Feisal had lent us as a special luxury. Baggage conditions were so hard and important for us that we rich took pride in faring like the men, who could not transport unnecessary things: and never before had I had a tent of my own. We pitched it at the very edge of a bluff of the foothills; a bluff no wider than the tent and rounded, so that the slope went straight down from the pegs of the door-flap. There we found sitting and waiting for us Abd el Kerim, the young Beidawi Sherif, wrapped up to the eyes in his head-cloth and cloak, since the evening was chill and threatened rain. He had come to ask me for a mule, with saddle and bridle. The smart appearance of Maulud’s little company in breeches and puttees, and their fine new animals in the market at Um Lejj, had roused his desire.
I played with his eagerness, and put him off, advancing a condition that he should ask me after our successful arrival at Wejh; and with this he was content. We hungered for sleep, and at last he rose to go, but, chancing to look across the valley, saw the hollows beneath and about us winking with the faint camp-fires of the scattered contingents. He called me out to look, and swept his arm round, saying half-sadly, ‘We are no longer Arabs but a People’.
He was half-proud too, for the advance on Wejh was their biggest effort; the first time in memory that the manhood of a tribe, with transport, arms, and food for two hundred miles, had left its district and marched into another’s territory without the hope of plunder or the stimulus of blood feud. Abd el Kerim was glad that his tribe had shown this new spirit of service, but also sorry; for to him the joys of life were a fast camel, the best weapons, and a short sharp raid against his neighbour’s herd: and the gradual achievement of Feisal’s ambition was making such joys less and less easy for the responsible.
During the morning it rained persistently; and we were glad to see more water coming to us, and so comfortable in the tents at Semna that we delayed our start till the sun shone again in the early afternoon. Then we rode westward down the valley in the fresh light. First behind us came the Ageyl. After them Abd el Kerim led his Gufa men, about seven hundred of them mounted, with more than that number following afoot. They were dressed in white, with large head-shawls of red and black striped cotton, and they waved green palm-branches instead of banners.
Next to them rode Sherif Mohammed Ali abu Sharrain, an old patriarch with a long, curling grey beard and an upright carriage of himself. His three hundred riders were Ashraf, of the Aiaishi (Juheina) stock, known Sherifs, but only acknowledged in the mass, since they had not inscribed pedigrees. They wore rusty-red tunics henna-dyed, under black cloaks, and carried swords. Each had a slave crouched behind him on the crupper to help him with rifle and dagger in the fight, and to watch his camel and cook for him on the road. The slaves, as befitted slaves of poor masters, were very little dressed. Their strong, black legs gripped the camels’ woolly sides as in a vice, to lessen the shocks inevitable on their bony perches, while they had knotted up their rags of shirts into the plaited thong about their loins to save them from the fouling of the camels and their staling on the march. Semna water was medicinal, and our animals’ dung flowed like green soup down their hocks that day.
Behind the Ashraf came the crimson banner of our last tribal detachment, the Rifaa, under Owdi ibn Zuweid, the old wheedling sea-pirate who had robbed the Stotzingen Mission and thrown their wireless and their Indian servants into the sea at Yenbo. The sharks presumably refused the wireless, but we had spent fruitless hours dragging for it in the harbour. Owdi still wore a long, rich, fur-lined German officer’s greatcoat, a garment little suited to the climate but, as he insisted, magnificent booty. He had about a thousand men, three-quarters of them on foot, and next him marched Rasim, the gunner commandant, with his four old Krupp guns on the pack-mules, just as we had lifted them from the Egyptian Army.
Rasim was a sardonic Damascene, who rose laughing to every crisis and slunk about sore-headed with grievances when things went well. On this day there were dreadful murmurings, for alongside him rode Abdulla el Deleimi, in charge of machine-guns, a quick, clever, superficial but attractive officer, much of the professional type, whose great joy was to develop some rankling sorrow in Rasim till it discharged full blast on Feisal or myself. To-day I helped him by smiling to Rasim that we were moving at intervals of a quarter-day in echelon of sub-tribes. Rasim looked over the new-washed underwood, where raindrops glistened in the light of the sun setting redly across the waves below a ceiling of clouds, and looked too at the wild mob of Beduins racing here and there on foot after birds and rabbits and giant lizards and jerboas and one another: and assented sourly, saying that he too would shortly become a sub-tribe, and echelon himself half a day to one side or other, and be quit of flies.
At first starting a man in the crowd had shot a hare from the saddle, but because of the risk of wild shooting Feisal had then forbidden it, and those later put up by our camels’ feet were chased with sticks. We laughed at the sudden commotion in the marching companies: cries, and camels swerving violently, their riders leaping off and laying out wildly with their canes to kill or to be pickers-up of a kill. Feisal was happy to see the army win so much meat, but disgusted at the shameless Juheina appetite for lizards and jerboas.
We rode over the flat sand, among the thorn trees, which here were plentiful and large, till we came out on the sea-beach and turned northward along a broad, well-beaten track, the Egyptian pilgrim road. It ran within fifty yards of the sea, and we could go up it thirty or forty singing files abreast. An old lava-bed half buried in sand jutted out from the hills four or five miles inland, and made a promontory. The road cut across this, but at the near side were some mud flats, on which shallow reaches of water burned in the last light of the west. This was our expected stage, and Feisal signalled the halt. We got off our camels and stretched ourselves, sat down or walked before supper to the sea and bathed by hundreds, a splashing, screaming, mob of fish-like naked men of all earth’s colours.
Supper was to look forward to, as a Juheina that afternoon had shot a gazelle for Feisal. Gazelle meat we found better than any other in the desert, because this beast, however barren the land and dry the water-holes, seemed to own always a fat juicy body.
The meal was the expected success. We retired early, feeling too full: but soon after Newcombe and myself had stretched out in our tent we were quickened by a wave of excitement travelling up the lines; running camels, shots, and shouts. A breathless slave thrust his head under the flap crying, ‘News! news! Sherif Bey is taken’. I jumped up and ran through the gathering crowd to Feisal’s tent, which was already beset by friends and servants. With Feisal sat, portentously and unnaturally collected in the din, Raja, the tribesman who had taken to Abdulla word to move into Wadi Ais. Feisal was radiant, his eyes swollen with joy, as he jumped up and shouted to me through the voices, ‘Abdulla has captured Eshref Bey’. Then I knew how big and good the event was.
Eshref was a notorious adventurer in the lower levels of Turkish politics. In his boyhood, near his Smyrna home, he had been just a brigand, but with years he became a revolutionary, and when he was finally captured Abd el Hamid exiled him to Medina for five coloured years. At first he was closely confined there, but one day he broke the privy window and escaped to Shehad, the bibulous Emir, in his suburb of Awali. Shahad was, as usual, at war with the Turks and gave him sanctuary; but Eshref, finding ME dull, at last borrowed a fine mare and rode to the Turkish barracks. On its square was the officer-son of his enemy the Governor drilling a company of gendarmes. He galloped him down, slung him across his saddle, and made away before the astonished police could protest.
He took to Jebel Ohod, an uninhabited place, driving his prisoner before him, calling him his ass, and lading upon him thirty loaves and the skins of water necessary for their nourishment. To recover his son, the Pasha gave Eshref liberty on parole and five hundred pounds. He bought camels, a tent, and a wife, and wandered among the tribes till the Young Turk revolution. Then he reappeared in Constantinople and became a bravo, doing Enver’s murders. His services earned the appointment of inspector of refugee-relief in Macedonia, and he retired a year later with an assured income from landed estate.
When war broke out he went down to Medina with funds, and letters from the Sultan to Arabian neutrals; his mission being to open communications with the isolated Turkish garrison in Yemen. His track on the first stage of the journey had happened to cross Abdulla’s, on his way to Wadi Ais, near Kheibar, and some of the Arabs, watching their camels during a midday halt, had been stopped by Eshref’s men and questioned. They said they were Heteym, and Abdulla’s army a supply caravan going to Medina. Eshref released one with orders to bring the rest for examination, and this man told Abdulla of soldiers camped up on the hill.
Abdulla was puzzled and sent horsemen to investigate. A minute later he was startled by the sudden chatter of a machine-gun. He leaped to the conclusion that the Turks had sent out a flying column to cut him off, and ordered his mounted men to charge them desperately. They galloped over the machine-gun, with few casualties, and scattered the Turks. Eshref fled on foot to the hill-top. Abdulla offered a reward of a thousand pounds for him; and near dusk he was found, wounded, and captured by Sherif Fauzan el Harith, in a stiff fight.
In the baggage were twenty thousand pounds in coin, robes of honour, costly presents, some interesting papers, and camel loads of rifles and pistols. Abdulla wrote an exultant letter to Fakhri Pasha (telling him of the capture), and nailed it to an uprooted telegraph pole between the metals, when he crossed the railway next night on his unimpeded way to Wadi Ais. Raja had left him there, camped in quiet and in ease. The news was a double fortune for us.
Between the joyful men slipped the sad figure of the Imam, who raised his hand. Silence fell for an instant. Hear me,’ he said, and intoned an ode in praise of the event, to the effect that Abdulla was especially favoured, and had attained quickly to the glory which Feisal was winning slowly but surely by hard work. The poem was creditable as the issue of only sixteen minutes, and the poet was rewarded in gold. Then Feisal saw a gaudy jewelled dagger at Raja’s belt. Raja stammered it was Eshref’s. Feisal threw him his own and pulled the other off, to give it in the end to Colonel Wilson. What did my brother say to Eshref?’ Is this your return for our hospitality?’ While Eshref had replied like Suckling, ‘I can fight, Whether I am the wrong or right, Devoutly!’
‘How many millions did the Arabs get?’ gasped greedy old Mohammed Ali, when he heard of Abdulla to the elbows in the captured chest, flinging gold by handfuls to the tribes. Raja was everywhere in hot demand, and he slept a richer man that night, deservedly, for Abdulla’s march to Ais made the Medina situation sure. With Murray pressing in Sinai, Feisal nearing Wejh, and Abdulla between Wejh and Medina, the position of the Turks in Arabia became defensive only. The tide of our ill-fortune had turned; and the camp seeing our glad faces was noisy until dawn.
Next day we rode easily. A breakfast suggested itself, upon our finding some more little water-pools, in a bare valley flowing down from El Sukhur, a group of three extraordinary hills like granite bubbles blown through the earth. The journey was pleasant, for it was cool; there were a lot of us; and we two Englishmen had a tent in which we could shut ourselves up and be alone. A weariness of the desert was the living always in company, each of the party hearing all that was said and seeing all that was done by the others day and night. Yet the craving for solitude seemed part of the delusion of self-sufficiency, a factitious making-rare of the person to enhance its strangeness in its own estimation. To have privacy, as Newcombe and I had, was ten thousand times more restful than the open life, but the work suffered by the creation of such a bar between the leaders and men. Among the Arabs there were no distinctions, traditional or natural, except the unconscious power given a famous sheikh by virtue of his accomplishment; and they taught me that no man could be their leader except he ate the ranks’ food, wore their clothes, lived level with them, and yet appeared better in himself.
In the morning we pressed towards Abu Zereibat with the early sun incandescent in a cloudless sky, and the usual eye-racking dazzle and dance of sunbeams on polished sand or polished flint. Our path rose slightly at a sharp limestone ridge with eroded flanks, and we looked over a sweeping fall of bare, black gravel between us and the sea, which now lay about eight miles to the westward: but invisible.
Once we halted and began to feel that a great depression lay in front of us; but not till two in the afternoon after we had crossed a basalt outcrop did we look out over a trough fifteen miles across, which was Wadi Hamdh, escaped from the hills. On the north-west spread the great delta through which Hamdh spilled itself by twenty mouths; and we saw the dark lines, which were thickets of scrub in the flood channels of the dried beds, twisting in and out across the flat from the hill-edge beneath us, till they were lost in the sun-haze thirty miles away beyond us to our left, near the invisible sea. Behind Hamdh rose sheer from the plain a double hill, Jebel Raal: hog-backed but for a gash which split it in the middle. To our eyes, sated with small things, it was a fair sight, this end of a dry river longer than the Tigris; the greatest valley in Arabia, first understood by Doughty, and as yet unexplored; while Raal was a fine hill, sharp and distinctive, which did honour to the Hamdh.
Full of expectation we rode down the gravel slopes, on which tufts of grass became more frequent, till at three o’clock we entered the Wadi itself. It proved a bed about a mile wide, filled with clumps of asla bushes, round which clung sandy hillocks each a few feet high. Their sand was not pure, but seamed with lines of dry and brittle clay, last indications of old flood levels. These divided them sharply into layers, rotten with salty mud and flaking away, so that our camels sank in, fetlock-deep, with a crunching noise like breaking pastry. The dust rose up in thick clouds, thickened yet more by the sunlight held in them; for the dead air of the hollow was a-dazzle.
The ranks behind could not see where they were going, which was difficult for them, as the hillocks came closer together, and the river-bed slit into a maze of shallow channels, the work of partial floods year after year. Before we gained the middle of the valley everything was over-grown by brushwood, which sprouted sideways from the mounds and laced one to another with tangled twigs as dry, dusty and brittle as old bone. We tucked in the streamers of our gaudy saddle-bags, to prevent their being jerked off by the bushes, drew cloaks tight over our clothes, bent our heads down to guard our eyes and crashed through like a storm amongst reeds. The dust was blinding and choking, and the snapping of the branches, grumbles of the camels, shouts and laughter of the men, made a rare adventure.
Before we quite reached the far bank the ground suddenly cleared at a clay bottom, in which stood a deep brown water-pool, eighty yards long and about fifteen yards wide. This was the flood-water of Abu Zereibat, our goal. We went a few yards further, through the last scrub, and reached the open north bank where Feisal had appointed the camp. It was a huge plain of sand and flints, running to the very feet of Raal, with room on it for all the armies of Arabia. So we stopped our camels, and the slaves unloaded them and set up the tents; while we walked back to see the mules, thirsty after their long day’s march, rush with the foot-soldiers into the pond, kicking and splashing with pleasure in the sweet water. The abundance of fuel was an added happiness, and in whatever place they chose to camp each group of friends had a roaring fire — very welcome, as a wet evening mist rose eight feet out of the ground and our woollen cloaks stiffened and grew cold with its silver beads in their coarse woof.
It was a black night, moonless, but above the fog very brilliant with stars. On a little mound near our tents we collected and looked over the rolling white seas of fog. Out of it arose tent-peaks, and tall spires of melting smoke, which became luminous underneath when the flames licked higher into the clean air, as if driven by the noises of the unseen army. Old Auda ibn Zuweid corrected me gravely when I said this to him, telling me, ‘It is not an army, it is a world which is moving on Wejh’. I rejoiced at his insistence, for it had been to create this very feeling that we had hampered ourselves with an unwieldy crowd of men on so difficult a march.
That evening the Billi began to come in to us shyly, and swear fealty, for the Hamdh Valley was their boundary. Amongst them Hamid el Bifada rode up with a numerous company to pay his respects to Feisal. He told us that his cousin, Suleiman Pasha, the paramount of the tribe, was at Abu Ajaj, fifteen miles north of us, trying desperately for once to make up the mind which had chopped and balanced profitably throughout a long life. Then, without warning or parade, Sherif Nasir of Medina came in. Feisal leaped up and embraced him, and led him over to us.
Nasir made a splendid impression, much as we had heard, and much as we were expecting of him. He was the opener of roads, the forerunner of Feisal’s movement, the man who had fired his first shot in Medina, and who was to fire our last shot at Muslimieh beyond Aleppo on the day that Turkey asked for an armistice, and from beginning to end all that could be told of him was good.
He was a brother of Shehad, the Emir of Medina. Their family was descended from Hussein, the younger of Ali’s children, and they were the only descendants of Hussein considered Ashraf, not Saada. They were Shias, and had been since the days of Kerbela, and in Hejaz were respected only second to the Emirs of Mecca. Nasir himself was a man of gardens, whose lot had been unwilling war since boyhood. He was now about twenty-seven. His low, broad forehead matched his sensitive eyes, while his weak pleasant mouth and small chin were clearly seen through a clipped black beard.
He had been up here for two months, containing Wejh, and his last news was that the outpost of Turkish camel corps upon our road had withdrawn that morning towards the main defensive position.
We slept late the following day, to brace ourselves for the necessary hours of talk. Feisal carried most of this upon his own shoulders. Nasir supported him as second in command, and the Beidawi brothers sat by to help. The day was bright and warm, threatening to be hot later, and Newcombe and I wandered about looking at the watering, the men, and the constant affluence of newcomers. When the sun was high a great cloud of dust from the east heralded a larger party and we walked back to the tents to see Mirzuk el Tikheimi, Feisal’s sharp, mouse-featured guest-master, ride in. He led his clansmen of the Juheina past the Emir at a canter, to make a show. They stifled us with their dust, for his van of a dozen sheikhs carrying a large red flag and a large white flag drew their swords and charged round and round our tents. We admired neither their riding nor their mares: perhaps because they were a nuisance to us.
About noon the Wuld Mohammed Harb, and the mounted men of the ibn Shefia battalion came in: three hundred men, under Sheikh Salih and Mohammed ibn Shefia. Mohammed was a tubby, vulgar little man of fifty-five, common-sensible and energetic. He was rapidly making a name for himself in the Arab army, for he would get done any manual work. His men were the sweepings of Wadi Yenbo, landless and without family, or labouring Yenbo townsmen, hampered by no inherited dignity. They were more docile than any other of our troops except the white-handed Ageyl who were too beautiful to be made into labourers.
We were already two days behind our promise to the Navy, and Newcombe decided to ride ahead this night to Habban. There he would meet Boyle and explain that we must fail the Hardinge at the rendezvous, but would be glad if she could return there on the evening of the twenty-fourth, when we should arrive much in need of water. He would also see if the naval attack could not be delayed till the twenty-fifth to preserve the joint scheme.
After dark there came a message from Suleiman Rifada, with a gift-camel for Feisal to keep if he were friendly, and to send back if hostile. Feisal was vexed, and protested his inability to understand so feeble a man. Nasir asserted, ‘Oh, it’s because he eats fish. Fish swells the head, and such behaviour follows’. The Syrians and Mesopotamians, and men of Jidda and Yenbo laughed loudly, to shew that they did not share this belief of the upland Arab, that a man of his hands was disgraced by tasting the three mean foods — chickens, eggs and fish. Feisal said, with mock gravity, ‘You insult the company, we Wee fish’. Others protested, We abandon it, and take refuge in God’, and Mirzuk to change the current said, ‘Suleiman is an unnatural birth, neither raw nor ripe’.
In the morning, early, we marched in a straggle for three hours down Wadi Hamdh. Then the valley went to the left, and we struck out across a hollow, desolate, featureless region. To-day was cold: a hard north wind drove into our faces down the grey coast. As we marched we heard intermittent heavy firing from the direction of Wejh, and feared that the Navy had lost patience and were acting without us. However, we could not make up the days we had wasted, so we pushed on for the whole dull stage, crossing affluent after affluent of Hamdh. The plain was striped with these wadies, all shallow and straight and bare, as many and as intricate as the veins in a leaf. At last we re-entered Hamdh, at Kurna, and though its clay bottoms held only mud, decided to camp.
While we were settling in there was a sudden rush. Camels had been seen pasturing away to the east, and the energetic of the Juheina streamed out, captured them, and drove them in. Feisal was furious, and shouted to them to stop, but they were too excited to hear him. He snatched his rifle, and shot at the nearest man; who, in fear, tumbled out of his saddle, so that the others checked their course. Feisal had them up before him, laid about the principals with his camel-stick, and impounded the stolen camels and those of the thieves till the whole tally was complete. Then he handed the beasts back to their Billi owners. Had he not done so it would have involved the Juheina in a private war with the Billi, our hoped-for allies of the morrow, and might have checked extension beyond Wejh. Our success lay in bond to such trifles.
Next morning we made for the beach, and up it to Habban at four o’clock. The Hardinge was duly there, to our relief, and landing water: although the shallow bay gave little shelter, and the rough sea rolling in made boat-work hazardous. We reserved first call for the mules, and gave what water was left to the more thirsty of the footmen; but it was a difficult night, and crowds of suffering men lingered jostling about the tanks in the rays of the searchlight, hoping for another drink, if the sailors should venture in again.
I went on board, and heard that the naval attack had been carried out as though the land army were present, since Boyle feared the Turks would run away if he waited. As a matter of fact, the day we reached Abu Zereibat, Ahmed Tewflk Bey, Turkish Governor, had addressed the garrison, saying that Wejh must be held to the last drop of blood. Then at dusk he had got on to his camel and ridden off to the railway with the few mounted men fit for flight. The two hundred infantry determined to do his abandoned duty against the landing party; but they were outnumbered three to one, and the naval gun-fire was too heavy to let them make proper use of their positions. So far as the Hardinge knew, the fighting was not ended, but Wejh town had been occupied by seamen and Saleh’s Arabs.
Profitable rumours excited the army, which began to trickle off northward soon after midnight. At dawn we rallied the various contingents in Wadi Miya, twelve miles south of the town, and advanced on it in order, meeting a few scattered Turks, of whom one party put up a short resistance. The Ageyl dismounted, to strip off their cloaks, head-cloths and shirts; and went on in brown half-nakedness, which they said would ensure clean wounds if they were hit: also their precious clothes would not be damaged. Ibn Dakhil in command obtained a quiet regularity of obedience. They advanced by alternate companies, in open order, at intervals of four or five yards, with even-numbered companies in support, making good use of the poor cover which existed.
It was pretty to look at the neat, brown men in the sunlit sandy valley, with the turquoise pool of salt water in the midst to set off the crimson banners which two standard bearers carried in the van. They went along in a steady lope, covering the ground at nearly six miles an hour, dead silent, and reached and climbed the ridge without a shot fired. So we knew the work had been finished for us and trotted forward to find the boy Saleh, son of ibn Shefia, in possession of the town. He told us that his casualties had been nearly twenty killed; and later we heard that a British lieutenant of the Air Service had been mortally wounded in a seaplane reconnaissance, and one British seaman hurt in the foot.
Vickery, who had directed the battle, was satisfied, but I could not share his satisfaction. To me an unnecessary action, or shot, or casualty, was not only waste but sin. I was unable to take the professional view that all successful actions were gains. Our rebels were not materials, like soldiers, but friends of ours, trusting our leadership. We were not in command nationally, but by invitation; and our men were volunteers, individuals, local men, relatives, so that a death was a personal sorrow to many in the army. Even from the purely military point of view the assault seemed to me a blunder.
The two hundred Turks in Wejh had no transport and no food, and if left alone a few days must have surrendered. Had they escaped, it would not have mattered the value of an Arab life. We wanted Wejh as a base against the railway and to extend our front; the smashing and killing in it had been wanton.
The place was inconveniently smashed. Its townspeople had been warned by Feisal of the coming attack, and advised either to forestall it by revolt or to clear out; but they were mostly Egyptians from Kosseir, who preferred the Turks to us, and decided to wait the issue; so the Shefia men and the Biasha found the houses packed with fair booty and made a sweep of it. They robbed the shops, broke open doors, searched every room, smashed chests and cupboards, tore down all fixed fittings, and slit each mattress and pillow for hidden treasure; while the fire of the fleet punched large holes in every prominent wall or building.
Our main difficulty was the landing of stores. The Fox had sunk the local lighters and rowing boats and there was no sort of quay; but the resourceful Hardinge thrust herself into the harbour (which was wide enough but much too short) and landed our stuff in her own cutters. We raised a tired working party of ibn Shefia followers, and with their clumsy or languid help got enough food into the place for the moment’s needs. The townspeople had returned hungry, and furious at the state of what had been their property; and began their revenge by stealing everything unguarded, even slitting open the rice-bags on the beach and carrying away quantities in their held-up skirts. Feisal corrected this by making the pitiless Maulud Town-governor. He brought in his rough-riders and in one day of wholesale arrest and summary punishment persuaded everyone to leave things alone. After that Wejh had the silence of fear.
Even in the few days which elapsed before I left for Cairo the profits of our spectacular march began to come in. The Arab movement had now no opponent in Western Arabia, and had passed beyond danger of collapse. The vexed Rabegh question died: and we had learnt the first rules of Beduin warfare. When regarded backward from our benefits of new knowledge the deaths of those regretted twenty men in the Wejh streets seemed not so terrible. Vickery’s impatience was justified, perhaps, in cold blood.
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