Seven Pillars of Wisdom – Day 43 of 240

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.

Chapter XXVI

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 like 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.

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