Seven Pillars of Wisdom – Day 155 of 240

In the morning we ran on nearly to Mudowwara, finding the ground-surface excellent to the watershed. So our reconnaissance had been a quick and easy success. At once we turned back, to fetch the armoured cars and undertake an immediate operation, with the help of the mountain gun section on Talbots.

This section was an oddment, which General Clayton had seen in Egypt, and had sent down to us in an inspired moment. Its Talbots, specially geared for heavy work, carried two ten-pounders with British gunners. It was wicked to give good men such rotten tools; yet their spirit seemed hardly affected by the inferior weapons. Their commander, Brodie, was a silent Scotsman, never very buoyant and never too anxious; a man who found difficulties shameful to notice, and who stamped himself on his fellows. However hard the duty given them, they always attacked it with such untroubled determination that their will prevailed. On every occasion and in every crisis they would be surely in place at their moment, perspiring but imperturbable, with never a word in explanation or complaint.

Eight imposing cars drove off from Guweira next day, and reached our old stopping-place behind Mudowwara by sundown. This was excellent; and we camped, intending to find a road to the railway in the morning. Accordingly we set off early in a Rolls tender and searched through the very nasty low hills till evening, when we were in place behind the last ridge, above Tell Shahm, the second station northward from Mudowwara.

We had talked vaguely of mining a train, but the country was too open, and enemy blockhouses numerous. Instead we determined to attack a little entrenched work exactly opposite our hiding-place. So late in new year’s morning, a day as cool as a good summer’s day in England, after a pleasant breakfast we rolled gently over a stony plain to a hillock which overlooked the Turkish post. Joyce and I got out of our cars and climbed its summit, to look on.

Joyce was in charge, and for the first time I was at a fight as spectator. The novelty was most enjoyable. Armoured car work seemed fighting de luxe, for our troops, being steel-covered, could come to no hurt. Accordingly we made a field-day of it like the best regular generals, sitting in laconic conference on our hill-top and watching the battle intently through binoculars.

The Talbot battery opened the affair, coming spiritedly into action just below our point; while the three armoured cars crawled about the flanks of the Turkish earthwork like great dogs nosing out a trail. The enemy soldiers popped up their heads to gaze, and everything was very friendly and curious, till the cars slewed round their Vickers and began to spray the trenches. Then the Turks, realizing that it was an attack, got down behind their parapets and fired at the cars raggedly. It was about as deadly as trying to warm a rhinoceros with bird-shot: after a while they turned their attention to Brodie’s guns and peppered the earth about them with bullets.

Obviously they did not mean to surrender, and obviously we had no means at disposal to compel them. So we drew off, contented with having prowled up and down the line, and proved the surface hard enough for car-operations at deliberate speed. However, the men looked for more, and to humour them we drove southward till opposite Shahm. There Brodie chose a gun-position at two thousand yards and began to throw shell after shell neatly into the station area.

Hating this, the Turks trickled off to a blockhouse, while the cars put leisurely bullets through the station doors and windows. They might have entered it safely, had there been point in doing so. As it was we called everybody off again, and returned into our hiding-hills. Our anxiety and forethought had been all to reach the railway through the manifold difficulties of the plains and hills. When we did reach it, we were entirely unready for action, with not a conception of what our tactics or method should be: yet we learned much from this very indecision.

The certainty that in a day from Guweira we could be operating along the railway, meant that traffic lay at our mercy. All the Turks in Arabia could not fight a single armoured car in open country. Thereby the situation of Medina, already bad, became hopeless. The German Staff saw it, and after Falkenhayn’s visit to Maan, they repeatedly urged abandonment of everything south of that point; but the old Turk party valued Medina as the last remnant of their sovereignty in the Holy Places, their surviving claim upon the Caliphate. Sentiment swung them to the decision, against military expediency.

The British seemed curiously dense about Medina. They insisted that it must be captured, and lavished money and explosives on the operations which Ali and Abdulla continually undertook from their Yenbo base. When I pleaded to the contrary, they treated my view as a witty paradox. Accordingly, to excuse our deliberate inactivity in the north, we had to make a show of impotence, which gave them to understand that the Arabs were too poltroon to cut the line near Maan and keep it cut. This reason gratified their sense of fitness, for soldiers, always ready to believe ill of native action, took its inferiority as a compliment. So we battened on our ill reputation, which was an ungenerous stratagem, but the easiest. The staff knew so much more of war than I did that they refused to learn from me of the strange conditions in which Arab irregulars had to act; and I could not be bothered to set up a kindergarten of the imagination for their benefit.

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