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With the Cameliers in Palestine

Chapter XIII — All in the Day’s Work

page 111

Chapter XIII
All in the Day’s Work

The first rays of early morning had just begun to appear in the east over the low hills of Southern Palestine. A piquet of the 16th Company stirred uneasily in the sheltered "possie" he had constructed for himself from two bales of hay and some sacks of dhurra and tibbin. He had been on duty since 2 a.m., and although he had his overcoat and a blanket wrapped round him, he felt the early morning air decidedly chilly. I will not say that he had been asleep, neither will I say that he had not; the onus of proving the former was on the officer for duty for the night, and of proving the latter on the piquet himself, and as the former gentleman was sound asleep under his blankets in his tent, the piquet was evidently taking few risks if he did take forty winks, as the two hundred camels barracked in the line under his sole charge hardly even stirred all night long. But one bull camel had stirred; excited by his sexual passion he writhed his long cobra-shaped neck this way and that, at the same time slobbering a bladder-like sac from the side of his mouth, and blubbering with a hoarse rumbling sound, which showed that he had gone "magnun," or mad. At last off came his halter, and he lolloped along the lines in the direction of the feed dump. The piquet stirred uneasily in his corner, when his ear caught a sound that brought him instantly to his feet with all his faculties on the alert. There, not ten yards away, lurching towards him, was an infuriated camel looking for a victim. The sentry was unarmed, there was no place of concealment, so he fled in the direction of the bivvy-lines, with the brute in full chase. He knew that if those ugly bared teeth once got a proper hold of him, nothing less than death would compel the animal to let page 112go, and that broken bones and bruised flesh and muscles, or worse, would be the punishment for that short sleep at his post. Never did the soft sand seem to be so yielding, his feet seemed like lead, and appeared to sink deeper with every step he took. He could hear the camel’s blubbering drawing nearer, so he yelled at the top of his voice for his mates to bring a rifle. By this time he was between two lines of bivvies, but dare not try to dive into one, as that would only place him at the mercy of his pursuer. But soldiers even if asleep, act more quickly than thought, and almost instantaneously (although the piquet thought it was an eternity) in answer to the summons, men in decidedly undress uniform with rifles in their hands appeared as if from nowhere, and the bull fell pierced with bullets, just as his hot malodorous breath fanned the back of the neck of the fugitive and made him feel his last moment had come.

The Sergeant-Major was aroused, and as daylight was appearing the order was given for all hands to fall in. A fatigue party was told off to remove the body of the dead camel and bury it, while the remainder of the company were marched out to a flat, sandy area and put through physical exercises and running practice for an hour. (The piquet was not asked to take part in these, he had his physical and mental "jerks" in a concentrated form already that morning.)

Exercises over, three men out of every group of four repaired to the camel lines to feed the animals, while the fourth man proceeded to boil the billy for breakfast.

Egypt and Palestine being perfectly treeless, firewood was always in short supply in the desert, and what was supplied to the troops had to be brought overseas. Every camelier became expert in ways of finding firewood, keeping possession of it, and using it in such a manner as to get the last heat unit from it, but at the same time page 113he was always willing to share his fire with his less fortunate companions. During a march, if a halt was made, and time seemed sufficient, no opportunity was lost of having a "boil-up." Each group of men always had a couple of empty fruit tins for making tea in. A man would secure, by fair means or foul, a piece of board from an empty bully-beef box or jam case, and would carry it on his saddle for days, or perhaps weeks, for use in such an emergency. Then during a "stunt" some day the order would be given, "Halt! Dismount! Boil up!" Then there would be a rush and scurry. Out would come the precious piece of wood, which had been carefully hoarded, and with a bayonet it was quickly split and broken into small pieces. The pint pots would be grouped over the flames, those of the later arrivals being accommodated round the outside of the blaze, and the bully-beef, condensed milk, and jam tins would be opened. Just as the water was becoming warm, the order might come, "Get mounted!" Imagine the scene, half a dozen thirsty men gathered round the small fire under a blistering sun, eagerly watching the billies coming to the boil (for the New Zealander and the Aussie do love their tea), and the hoarding of that lovely piece of pine-wood does seem to have been worth while. Then comes the fateful order to move off again. The water is not boiling and one cannot wait till it does, the precious wood has been wasted, the water is too warm to drink and too cold to make tea, and must be emptied out on the sand. Under these circumstances the war does not seem worth while, the sacrifice has been too much, and as for the "Heads" who were responsible, many a decent soldier forgot his religious teaching, forgot that he was in the Holy Land, forgot everything save that his carefully hoarded piece of wood had gone—for nothing, and that someone in authority was inflicting the cruellest form of punishment on a thirsty trooper. During moments like page 114these there were invented new and lurid forms of abuse and blasphemy. But perhaps the water was boiled just as the order to move arrived. By some means the Camelier gets into his saddle, juggling and balancing his hot tin in a manner that would do credit to a circus rider. Then comes the order "Trot!" and he tries to drink out of the hot tin, but only succeeds in spilling the tea on his bare knees (shorts are a relief only in relation to hot air, not hot liquids), or on the camel’s neck, which makes the animal plunge, and more tea is spilt, and finally, the rider’s endurance reaching the limit, the tin and its contents, in a blaze of blasphemy, are hurled to the winds, while some cheerful idiot starts singing, "Keep the home fires burning," or "Another little drink won’t do you any harm."

When in reserve the camels of a company would be sent out grazing after the morning meal. Four men would act as grazing guard, and as there were no fences or signs of habitation where they grazed, care had to be taken that the animals did not stray away among the sandhills and get lost. The halters were left on the camels’ heads with the ropes fastened round their necks so that these would not get caught on rocks or shrubs. On one occasion when the Fourth Battalion was camped on a level piece of stony ground just below Bethlehem, the camels were brought in from grazing on the rocky limestone ridges near at hand. One bluish-coloured bull had arrived as a remount only a few days before, and was looked on with suspicion as being a bad character. Of course this particular beast this day had to have his rope caught in a crack in a rock, which pulled off his halter, and when he arrived in camp his owner had difficulty in catching him. Another Camelier went to help him, and going up on the off side of the beast, got his hands on him, worked his way quietly forward, and put the thong of his riding-whip round the animal’s neck. page 115Suddenly the brute swerved his neck round, and with his teeth caught the trooper’s tunic at the back of the shoulder. The trooper pulled back as violently as he could, but tripped over a stone and fell on his back on the ground, thus tearing his tunic away from the camel’s teeth. The brute instantly came at him again as he lay on his back, and seized him by the arm. He used his heels to beat a tattoo on the animal’s nose, while his mates pelted it with rocks of which, fortunately, there was a plentiful supply all around. The camel was driven off, but the Camelier had a brand on his arm that will be with him all his life. That evening the Battalion saddled up and proceeded past Jerusalem, wound its way down past the Garden of Gethsemane, and travelling all night, arrived on the hilltops overlooking the Jordan Valley. In the morning the Camelier went to the doctor’s assistant to get some ointment for his arm, when it was found that his shoulder was a mass of bruises of a blue and greenish tinge, caused by the teeth of the camel when it seized hold of him, thus accounting for his stiffness during the all-night trek, but this did not deter him from taking part in the stirring times of the next fourteen days.

When the camels were being driven home in the late afternoons from their grazing grounds, they would disturb the insect life in the short, scanty herbage, and at certain times of the year it was a pretty sight to see the swallows skimming low to catch the small moths and other insects as they rose from the vegetation. These birds would accompany the herds of camels right to the camp, flying through the mob, swerving quickly to avoid the animals, but seizing their prey with unerring aim, and were never seen to settle on ground or shrub. Starlings, too, were sometimes seen in the evenings in great flocks, wheeling and counter-wheeling in the sky, with the rays of the setting sun lighting up the sheen of page 116their feathers which seemed to be everchanging in their shades as the rays of light fell on them from different angles.

When the camels were once more tied up in their lines in the evenings, grooming and "ticking" would be carried out. The ticks appeared to be the same as are found on sheep, and were frequently seen on the surface of the sandy soil, so it was no wonder that the camels collected them. They concealed themselves in the wrinkles in the skin in various parts of the camel’s body, and also in the split between the pads of its feet. These pests had to be picked off individually, and were collected in a tin and afterwards incinerated. Interest was lent to these ticking parades by Cameliers laying bets as to whose animal would provide the record number of ticks for the day. A wrinkled old bull was quite a safe bet for its owner, but even in these competitions instances of "crooked running" were not unknown; ticks were sometimes left untouched on a camel intentionally so as to provide a credit balance to be carried forward to the next day’s total, and then heavy sums, for a Camelier, were staked on the result. But these tricks did not always succeed as other duties frequently interfered with the ticking operations, and the camel was left to carry his overload of parasites. It was the ticks that won on these occasions.

One day in June, 1917, when the Brigade was in reserve at Sheikh Nuran, the Fourth Battalion had a holiday trip to the seaside to bathe the camels. Reveille was at 2.30 a.m.; a cup of tea had been promised us before we started, but appeared just as we were ready to move off, and only a few were lucky enough to swallow it before the order to march was given. Day-light was just beginning to appear as the Battalion left its camping ground, leaving the members of the Third page 117Battalion still wrapped in slumber. The unlucky non-tea drinkers in our outfit felt inclined to envy the sleeping camp, but in those days one never knew what was in store for us during the next twenty-four hours. A fifteen mile ride brought us to the beach beyond Rafa, and then we were at liberty to enjoy our breakfast. The day was calm and cloudless, the blue waters of the Mediterranean lapped up gently on the beautiful shelving beach, and stretched away to the horizon. All the discomforts of the sands of the desert were forgotten in the anticipations of a plunge in the cool, clear water. But the camels thought otherwise. Many of them no doubt had never seen so much water before, and probably thought they had come to the camels’ paradise, but when their riders tried to lead them into it, they rebelled; this seemed sacrilege to them to plunge their bodies into an element, which, from their limited experience, they knew was used only for drinking. So force had to be used. With one naked Camelier pulling at the halter, two or more similarly unclad joined hands behind each animal, and forcibly launched each "ship of the desert" into the watery main. No bottles of champagne were broken, and the speeches were short and crisp and to the point, but not intended for publication. When the camels got over the novelty of the strange element, they appeared to enjoy it. They looked very odd with their sheep-like heads sticking up on top of their long thin necks above the surface of the water, with what looked like an isolated round islet a couple of yards away, with a marooned Camelier clinging to it. Viewed from above, one camel in such surroundings must have looked like a plesiosaurus, or some other prehistoric monster, but a whole battalion in the sea would lead an observer in the air to fear that his reason had fled; the sight would be too much for his credulity.

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After a very pleasant midsummer day at the seaside a return was made to camp at Sheikh Nuran which was reached at 6.30 p.m., when it was found that the Third Battalion had had visitors of a most unpleasant kind. A number of camels had been lined up at Headquarters for inspection to decide which should be put on the sick-lines, and which evacuated to the camel hospital, when out of the sky swooped an enemy aeroplane which emptied its cargo of bombs right in the midst of the assembled camels, and effectively solved the problem of the Veterinary Officer by putting twenty-six animals on the list of "Killed in action." Other poor brutes not killed outright were frightfully maimed, some of these wandering aimlessly around until overcome, when they either lay down and expired, or were mercifully shot. Unfortunately two men were killed and nineteen wounded. The Fourth Battalion was in luck’s way that day, even if all hands did not get their early morning cup of tea.

The Turkish Taubes paid frequent visits to our lines about this time, and after such an experience as that just described, they became, in the words of the Irish Camelier, "a nightmare to us in the daytime." After this every man had to have a "funk-hole" dug in front of his bivvy, and each time a Taube appeared all hands had to dive for their underground shelter; they did not need much drill to perfect themselves in this movement.

A few Egyptians or Sudanese were sometimes attached to the Camel Companies to help with sick camels, and clean up the lines, etc. One faithful old Soudanese called Hassan, was a very friendly soul. One day he came to our Veterinary Sergeant and asked him for some medicine "to cure his sick eyes." "You should go to the doctor, Hassan, he will cure you," said the page 119V.S. "But I go to the Doctor, Sergeant-Major," replied Hassan, who never offended anyone by understating his rank, "and he say, ‘Go to the Medical Orderly,’ and I go to the Medical Orderly and tell him I have sick eyes, and will he please give me medicine to cure them, and the Medical Orderly say, ‘Go to the Devil,’ so Sergeant-Major I have come to you." The V.S. accepted the unconscious doubtful compliment, gave Hassan some boracic ointment to apply to his eyes, and sent him off. A few days later an inspection of the Brigade was held by the General, and during the march past, Hassan rushed up to the Veterinary Sergeant in the column, caught him by the arm, and said earnestly, "Look, Sergeant-Major, my eyes quite well now, thank you very much, you very good doctor." Hassan evidently believed in giving the Devil his due.