Later that night the canteen marquee was a raucous blast in the dark. William’s senses were overwhelmed by the bitter fumes of beer that accompanied the roar of singing and drunken laughter, as he fought his way to the bar, guided by the occasional candle. Lights were not permitted for fear of being bombed by enemy planes.
The barman filled his quart pot with frothy beer and he then squeezed his way back to a spot where a young trooper sat on the ground writing in a notebook that sat on an upturned box and illuminated by a candle.
“You’ll strain your eyes soldier,” William spoke as he also sat on his haunches beside him.
Lifting his eyes from his notebook, the Trooper smiled.
“What is your name Trooper?” William asked.
“Idriess, Sir,” The young soldier replied. “Jack Idriess.”
“Jack, I’m William,” he replied. “Are you writing a book?”
He noticed the pages were covered with handwriting from top to bottom.
“Just a diary sir, putting pen to paper keeps me sane. Besides, if something happens…” he hesitated. “well you know. ”
William nodded, taking a sip from his beer.
“So, where are you from Jack?’ William enquired.
“North Queensland. Herberton to be exact.”
“I’m a North Queenslander myself. Minehan Siding, south of Townsville.” William enjoyed the connection to home, a place that seems so very far away. It was like a dream, a long lost memory.
Sipping his beer, William enjoyed chatting with Trooper Idriess. He could feel the effects of the alcohol relax his mind and body, for the first time in such a long time. That was the first time any drink was in such good supply. A warm feeling cocooned his being as he soaked up the air of jubilation, allowing himself the one small luxury of feeling incredibly lucky that he had survived thus far. The feeling passed almost as soon as it appeared. He never allowed himself to dwell on it for long, in case his luck changed, well aware that others have not been so fortunate.
“You know, son,” William mused. “In some ways, we are very fortunate.”
“How is that?” The younger man appeared puzzled.
“We are surrounded by history, we have followed in the footsteps of the Pharaohs, the Romans and Napolean,” William replied, allowing the beer to free his thoughts.
“Indeed we have,” Idriess nodded in agreement. “Here’s to ancient soldiers.”
Both men raised their quart pots in celebration, avoiding any discussions about their previous weeks’ stunts.
Jack Idriess closed his notebook and slipped it in a pocket of his great coat. He then bid William goodnight and disappeared in the crowd.
William tipped up his quart pot to savour the last drop of beer and stood up, stretching his back before heading out towards the tents that stood like ghostly apparitions against the black sky. The cold night air fought against his great coat as his boots quietly sifted through the sand. He pulled his leather gloves over his long thin fingers and raised his woollen collar so it shielded his long bare neck. Despite the slight discomfort, he was thankful for the cool evening. He was thankful for being alive.
“Free at last,” he thought to himself. “How strange. How can one suddenly turn off the noise? The whizz of bullets, the screaming of shrapnel. The moaning of men.”
Since the Charge at Katia on August 5th, the regiment had been involved in vicious conflicts with the enemy. The heat and lack of water exacerbated the situation. At times the heat was so intense that after half an hour of solid shooting, rifles were too hot to hold. There were days when the torrential raining of bullets and shrapnel continued for hours. Horses and men dropped like flies onto the sands that turned red from blood.
Suddenly, William was drawn out of his dark void of thoughts by a wailing sound that seemed familiar but was totally unexpected. As it increased in intensity, the wailing was accompanied by the beating of drums. The outline of men appeared like mad ghosts in the desert. There were bagpipers squealing to the drum beats as the band of merry men marched across the sand, some performing an impromptu jig, others singing with glee.
William smiled at the merry band of minstrels as they jigged across his field of vision, fuelled by beer and joy. God knows, they deserve it. He knew how short lived joy could be in their unpredictable world.
He let the noise fade away as he thought of Jock Dakers, his Scottish brother in law, and wondered how he was faring since he enlisted. His attention then switched to home, treasuring the moment, as he tried to make out the outline of his squadron’s group of tents against the dark sky. He looked forward to collapsing onto his bedroll and awaking the following morning, knowing with a degree of certainty what the day would bring. Although he knew he had no control over his dreams.
Ion (Jack) Idriess mentions the drinks in the huge canteen marquee at Romani in “The Desert Column” – beer was provided to mark the end of the campaign at that time. He also mentioned that he encountered the Scottish bagpipers and drummers on his way back to his tent. I have no way of knowing whether he and William Lyons knew each other, although they were in the same regiment. It is likely.