Seven Pillars of Wisdom – Day 33 of 240

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.

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